Struggles remain for victim of anthrax attack
11 years after opening anthrax letter, a Quincy woman still has questions
The wreckage of the World Trade Center was still smoldering when the letters began arriving at media outlets and the offices of two US senators. By the end of the anthrax attacks, five people were dead. Seventeen others were infected but survived. The first bioterror attack in American history came and went quickly, fading into the shadow of 9/11’s mass destruction of airplanes, buildings, and lives.
But Casey Chamberlain will never forget. The Quincy resident rarely discusses what happened when, as a young NBC employee, she opened one of the anthrax-laced letters. But she recently spoke to the Globe about her ordeal, saying she wants people to remember that there were two sets of terrorist victims: those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, and those infected soon after with anthrax.
Moreover, she wants to make sure it never happens again.
The days following Sept. 11, 2001, were hectic for 23-year-old Chamberlain, who was working as a desk assistant for the “NBC Nightly News” at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan. The country was in shock, and in New York, frantic callers were flooding the network, seeking information about the attacks.
“We had so many victims’ families calling,” she says.
Chamberlain, a former Barnstable High School class president who had graduated from UMass Amherst in 2000, was also responsible for opening mail for anchor Tom Brokaw. “Tom would get all different kinds of mail, from love letters to hate mail,” says Chamberlain, now 34. “They were often the ramblings of angry viewers or compliments from fans.”
In one such stack, on Sept. 18, was an envelope addressed in block letters. Chamberlain opened it, and to her surprise found “some brown, granular stuff” — a cross between sand and brown sugar, she recalls. At the top of the letter was “09-11-01” and, in capital letters it read:
“THIS IS NEXT
TAKE PENACILIN NOW
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
ALLAH IS GREAT”
Chamberlain remembers thinking, “OK, someone’s just pulling a prank or it’s a crazy person.” All mail was to be saved, so she emptied the sand-like substance into the trash can, and placed the letter in a pile for Brokaw’s personal assistant, Erin O’Connor.
Ten days later, Chamberlain came down with severe flu and nausea. Her glands and face were hugely swollen. She had worn a skirt to work the day the letter arrived, and remembers scratching her leg, which was now covered with what looked like black bug bites.
One curious symptom: “I could actually feel something circulating through my body.”
She had just started taking Accutane, a drug prescribed for acne, and her doctor thought she was having a reaction to it. He prescribed the antibiotic Cipro.
O’Connor — who handled the letter after Chamberlain — had developed a lesion on her collarbone. Brokaw sent O’Connor to one of his doctors, an infectious disease specialist who had worked in Africa. “He saw it and he knew right away what it was,” Chamberlain recalls. A biopsy came back positive for anthrax.
The word “anthrax” was not much a part of the American vocabulary. Few doctors had ever seen a case. At first, Chamberlain says, no one at NBC — including herself — realized that she had been infected. “I was 23,” she says. “I wasn’t going to talk to Tom Brokaw about being sick.”
But on Oct. 5, 2001, a photo editor at a Florida tabloid died from inhaling anthrax spores that had also come through the mail, heralding the after-shock of 9/11: bioterrorism. Investigators then learned of the NBC letter, and that Chamberlain, who was the first to open it, was infected. As it turned out, her black “bug bites” were anthrax lesions.
Lucky to be alive
When Chamberlain was finally diagnosed, she told only family and a few friends, including Josh Weiner, now a producer for the “Today” show, who has known Chamberlain since their early days at NBC.
Her life “was completely turned upside down,” says Weiner, who grew up in Brookline. “She’s been through a lot, and Casey’s a fighter with a lot of resilience.
“If there’s any long-term takeaway, I think it’s that Casey’s even closer with her family and friends than ever before. She’s definitely stronger. In many ways, I think she feels like a survivor.”
Indeed, Chamberlain is lucky to be alive.
“If I had gone like this,” she says, inhaling deeply, “I would have died.”
Instead, she contracted the less severe cutaneous strain, which enters the body through a cut or sore on the skin.
Anthrax bacteria release toxins that can cause swelling, internal bleeding and tissue death. Inhalation anthrax has a high mortality rate because the toxins easily enter the lungs and bloodstream and spread quickly. Of the 22 cases of anthrax in 2001, 11 were inhalation, 11 were cutaneous. Of the 11 who inhaled the spores, five died, six survived. All of the cutaneous cases survived.
Chamberlain’s New Jersey apartment was also tested, and a number of spores found. Nearly everything in it, and in her boyfriend’s apartment — furniture, bedding, dishes, TVs, clothes — was put in barrels and burned. They were allowed to keep a small box of items, mostly pictures.
The NBC newsroom was also taken apart, scrubbed and rebuilt. Though the letter did eventually reach Brokaw, he was not infected. “I actually handled the letter but most of the residue was gone by then,” he said in an e-mail to the Globe this week.
The FBI concluded that the spores came from the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. The agency has called the case one of its longest and most complex, and closed it after chief suspect Bruce Ivins, an Army biodefense expert, committed suicide in 2008. But many, including members of a National Academy of Science panel, have questioned the FBI findings, which they say relied on circumstantial evidence.
The agency had previously focused on another scientist, Steven Hatfill, who was eventually cleared. Hatfill sued the Justice Department and the FBI and in 2008 won a $5.8 million settlement.
Anxious, hyper, forgetful
Today, Chamberlain, who ran cross country, played the violin, and was on the student council in high school, continues to lead a full life: She has a healthy, lively 6-year-old daughter, a cozy home in Quincy she shares with partner Craig Ruiter, a new dog, and a job as an administrative assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital.
But she still lives with the legacy of the letter. She says she has symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, including some depression and anxiety. “It definitely made me much more of a worrywart,” she says.
She also suffers from short-term memory loss, difficulty focusing at times, and a periodic ringing in her ears.
“My memory was always really great,” says Chamberlain, and her long-term memory is still good. “But if I am trying to recall things I was just discussing in conversation, that is often forgotten.”
And though she tries to hide it, Chamberlain says she is “far more anxious in different situations than I ever was in the past.”
Her parents agree. “She gets anxious about things, a little more hyper than she used to be,” says her father, Donald, a social work administrator. “She sometimes complains that she can’t remember stuff. She’s always been driven and active and hyper, but I feel it’s gotten a little worse.”
Her mother Cynthia Chamberlain, a medical technologist, says that the past couple of years have been especially difficult for their daughter. “We’re not sure why, but it seems now that it’s almost worse than right after the event,” she says. “It’s been worrisome. She does struggle and some days she is really down.”
Her daughter worries constantly, she says, “about minutia that would never have crossed her mind when she was in New York.”
After going to the grocery store, for example, Chamberlain may worry about whether she was nice enough to the clerk. Or whether her daughter might have offended someone while playing. Always high energy, Chamberlain may have “a million things to get done today,” says her mother. “But she won’t get them all done because she’s more scattered than she ever was.”
Since 2002, Chamberlain and some other survivors have participated in a National Institutes of Health study on the long-term effects of anthrax exposure. The study is ongoing and no results are yet published. But principal investigator Dr. Mary Wright says that some victims still suffer serious symptoms, chiefly fatigue and memory issues.
“This has really changed their lives,” says Wright. “Prior to infection, they felt they had very good memories. They have also had an uncharacteristic fatigue. These are people who worked 20 hours a day and never missed a day.”
While some have noticed an improvement over time, others have not, Wright says.
Some survivors, including Chamberlain, also met annually with the FBI in Washington, D.C., until the case was closed.
“It was nice to be around people who understand what happened,” she says. “There were so few of us, unlike the 9/11 families who had huge numbers of people.”
Among some of the survivors, nagging questions remain. The FBI built its case on Ivins’ access to and deep knowledge of the anthrax spores, his late working hours during that period, and his alleged mental instability.
Chamberlain isn’t entirely satisfied with the criminal case’s conclusion since Ivins died before he could be arrested and tried. “But in my mind, he would have been convicted in a courtroom,” she says.
Her mother, who also attended the FBI sessions, believes the attacks were the work of more than a lone scientist. “I suspect he was involved, but I don’t think it’s possible for one person to do all that. I think there’s definitely someone out there who knows more than has ever been revealed.”
Chamberlain remained at NBC until June 2007. She loved New York and her job, working her way up to executive assistant for the executive producer of the “Nightly News.” But she wanted to move with her daughter back to Massachusetts to be closer to her family.
Josh Weiner admires the way Chamberlain has come to terms with what happened, and has gotten her life “back on track.”
“Even though it was a pivotal, traumatic life event, Casey’s never let this define her,” he says. “She’s not ‘the anthrax girl’ or anything. It’s just something that happened to her, and Casey’s moved on.”
Chamberlain remains in occasional touch with Brokaw, who recalls the time as “traumatic, because of all the uncertainty. No law enforcement official or physician initially believed it was anthrax. Casey and Erin were misdiagnosed for 10 days.”
In a Newsweek story in 2010, Brokaw wrote of his assistants: “The emotional wounds will always be with them, wounds brought on by a craven attack meant for me. That they paid the price is a guilt I will carry forever.”
In a recent e-mail, he added: “It was so unfair that these two brave women had to endure a life-threatening exposure because some idiot was trying to attack me. We’ve all moved on now, but it remains a cautionary tale about the dangerous world in which we live.”