By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
SUNDAY, MARCH 9, IS THE FOURTH DAY of the attack — the day when, traditionally, anthrax victims first begin to die. Except for the tolling of church bells, the city is quiet, and the streets are empty of everything but occasional emergency vehicles and the carcasses of dead birds. Most people huddle behind windows and doors sealed tight with duct tape, watching continuous news coverage on television or listening to "America the Beautiful" and "Amazing Grace" endlessly replayed on the radio. A cable channel plays nothing but prayer services for Los Angeles, broadcast from cathedrals and temples around the world.
Hospitals can't begin to cope with all the people clamoring for admission, so most anthrax victims are redirected to Staples Center, the convention center, high school gyms, and Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown. Doctors engage in triage, withholding antibiotics (and, in some cases, ventilators) from people whose symptoms are so advanced they are already beyond hope in order to save the remaining stocks of cipro for people with the early mild symptoms of anthrax and who need immediate treatment before the toxin buildup proves fatal.
One TV reporter, in a well-intended effort to keep the public informed, does an in-depth piece explaining exactly how anthrax kills its victims. But the details are so horrific the station manager refuses to run it on the grounds that it will "scare the fucking shit out of everyone in town." In fact, as the reporter tells his wife in bed that night, the details are"pretty damn scary." As soon as anyone inhales anthrax spores, they immediately begin making their way to the lymph nodes in the midchest area (mediastinum), where they cause symptoms resembling the flu. Sometimes, after a few days, the symptoms go away, a development that leads some victims to think they're getting better. In fact, what is really happening is that the spores are germinating into toxin-producing bacteria that then start to break down the thoracic viscera, causing the mediastinum to swell, which so compresses the lungs that the victims find it hard to breathe. In short order, the toxins hit a critical level, after which there's no treatment and no cure. Blood vessels leak so badly that low blood pressure sends the victim into shock. At the same time, the tissue around the brain fills with blood, causing delirium and coma. The only consolation — if you want to call it that — is that death is swift and sure.
Although public officials repeatedly tell citizens to stay calm and that there is "no cause for panic," that position becomes totally untenable when, on the fourth day, 53 people die, followed by 310 on the fifth, 1,137 on the sixth and 6,790 on the seventh. On day eight, 15,404 die. Although some TV anchors, in an effort to convey the psychological impact of the deaths, variously compare it to a nuclear explosion, an asteroid impact and a "cosmic gut shot from God's Saturday night special," others frankly admit it's beyond description and limit themselves to bare facts — the morgue so crowded it has to close its doors, cemetery workers digging graves round the clock, crematoriums running day and night.
Despite requests from public officials that residents lay low, long rows of cars, packed high with suitcases, jewelry, heirlooms and photographs, pour out of the city. The people who stay behind remain indoors, poring over newspaper lists of the people who died — a fatal laundry list of popular performers, athletes and politicians as well as middle school teachers, defense lawyers, emergency-room nurses, policemen, finish carpenters, performance artists, expectant mothers, wealthy studio heads, poor anti-war activists, cartoonists made obsolete by computers, supermarket checkers, elderly widows, and alcoholics living under freeway ramps in filthy sleeping bags. In the meantime, public services grind to a halt. Buses quit running. Some police and firemen stop showing up for duty. When finally even the sanitation workers go home, raw sewage begins to pour into Santa Monica Bay.
Acting on the assumption that most urban residents need constant reassurance from authorities in times of crisis, politicians take to the airwaves with dismaying frequency, the mayor praising the citizens of the city for showing the same kind of heroic stoicism the British displayed during the London blitz, the governor asserting that Los Angeles will emerge from the disaster as a stronger, better city, and the president announcing that he is praying for the city with all his heart.
If the citizens of Los Angeles are comforted by such remarks, they don't show it. Three people jump to their deaths out of mid-Wilshire high-rises. Suicide-prevention centers are deluged with calls from people wondering if life is worth living and if it wouldn't be better just to shoot themselves on the spot. Some people drink themselves insensible, while others descend on pharmacies, demanding Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac; Xanax, Valium and Inderal. In an effort to help calm the public, TV stations run interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists, who blandly advise residents to "live normally," "talk about their feelings," limit their exposure to the news media, and distract themselves with board games, jigsaw puzzles and "humorous books."