Bret Wincup wasn’t even paid to be there.
A new employee of the Senate doorkeeper’s office in 2001, Wincup spent his off-hours volunteering in then-Sen. Tom Daschle’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Sometimes he answered phones, but on the morning of Oct. 15, 2001, he was helping to open the volumes of mail that are typically sent to the Senate Majority Leader.
So when one of the South Dakota Democrat’s interns, Grant Leslie, cut open a letter purporting to be from a fourth-grade class in New Jersey, Wincup, who was nearby, was covered in deadly anthrax spores.
“We both kind of commented on it,” Wincup said in his first interview since the attack. “It was on our clothes, and the desk in front of us.”
“It looked like baby powder,” Leslie told PBS’ “Frontline.” “I was wearing a dark gray skirt and black shoes, and you could see it — just vividly — on the dark colors.” Leslie declined to be interviewed by Roll Call for this article. She has never spoken publicly about it before her brief “Frontline” interview, which aired Tuesday.
Indeed, the 28 people who tested positive for anthrax exposure in 2001 have rarely been seen or publicly heard from in the past 10 years. In the months after the attacks, Leslie’s identity was cloaked in secrecy, as were the identities of other exposed staffers — 20 from Daschle’s office along with a handful of Capitol Police officers and a few aides to then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), whose office was next door to Daschle’s.
Nancy Erickson, Daschle’s deputy chief of staff at the time, said the secrecy was purposeful.
“It was an unsaid agreement,” Erickson explained in her first interview on the subject. “We were going to go through this together, and we were going to do it privately as a group.”
On any other day of the week, Erickson would have been working out of the Capitol. But on Mondays, most of Daschle’s staff headed over to the Hart Building for the regular South Dakota strategy meeting.
“I remember someone popped their head into the room and said an envelope was opened with powder in it,” she recalled.
Initially, however, Erickson felt somewhat secure. As she watched staffers bring in their contaminated clothes the day after the attack, she said she cried at her desk over her concern for their safety. Daschle came up behind her and gently counseled, “Nancy, we have to be strong” for the younger staffers, she remembered.
It wasn’t until later that Erickson learned she also had tested positive for exposure to anthrax. She ended up turning over her clothes, too.
Greg Martin got the call about an hour after Leslie opened the letter, but the Navy infectious disease specialist said he wasn’t alarmed at first.
“I thought for sure it would test negative,” Martin said. But by 6 p.m. that day, Martin was at the Capitol complex planning logistics for how to deal with the staff and how to clean up the building.
It wasn’t until later that week that Martin met with staffers, and he didn’t have particularly good news. He had to tell them that while he suspected a two-month course of one of the most powerful antibiotics on the market would protect them from illness and death, he might be wrong.
“We had to say it might not work,” he said. “That understandably did terrify them.”
Wincup and Erickson, however, credit Martin with saving their lives. Erickson said everyone involved “would single him out as the reason we’re all healthy today.”
As an expert in his field, Martin had read a Canadian study showing that opening a letter containing anthrax could expose people to 1,000 to 3,000 times the lethal dose. He told Roll Call that he wasn’t sure whether after 60 days of using the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, that staffers would still have enough anthrax in their system to sicken or kill them. And he said even staffers in Daschle’s office who didn’t test positive were likely in dangerous territory without the antibiotics.
Erickson said Martin gave every staffer his personal phone numbers and told them to call him at any time. When no one began feeling sick within the first week after the attack, “I was really breathing a lot easier after that,” Martin said.
The morning of the attack, Daschle had told Roll Call that he was “extremely exhilarated.” After suffering with severe migraines, he had been worried about the potential for a more serious illness, and that day he had just gotten a clean bill of health following an MRI test. However, shortly after he got to the Capitol, he was informed of the danger to his staff.
“There was great anxiety,” Daschle said, noting that an American Media employee in Florida had already died from inhalation of anthrax and news outlets in New York had also received letters containing the microbe. Before it was all over, five people would die from the flurry of letters — including two Washington, D.C., postal workers who may have handled the letter sent to Daschle and/or another letter sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The Leahy letter was not discovered until November and did not appear to have contaminated his office, but the suites of Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) did need remediation. The Hart Building was closed for three months while the Environmental Protection Agency cleaned the site.
Wincup said there were two incidents on the 15th that really shook him as he was quarantined in the anthrax-laden office.
“There was a point when people in white suits came in, and it took on a whole other level of seriousness. That was scary,” an emotional Wincup said.
Again, he was shaken when, while watching the news, he heard then-President George W. Bush tell the nation, “I just talked to Leader Daschle and his office received a letter, and it had anthrax in it. The letter was field-tested, and the staffers that have been exposed are being treated.”
No one on Capitol Hill became ill or died, but only a month had transpired between the anthrax attacks and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, in which the Capitol was spared. “It was just getting back to normal after Sept. 11,” said Rodell Mollineau, Daschle’s former deputy press secretary, who was sitting in the same Oct. 15 meeting with Erickson.
But the contamination on Capitol Hill — including in the Ford House Office Building — sent new shivers of panic across the Dome. People lined up by the hundreds to be tested, including reporters who had stood outside Daschle’s office suite on the day of the attack.
“We were all under attack and felt threatened,” said former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was Minority Leader at the time. “I had one staff member who left and went home” after the anthrax attack, Lott added.
Martin said 5,000 to 6,000 people in the Capitol community ended up receiving free doses of Cipro.
“We did not feel that many people should be on it,” Martin said, noting some people took it even if they weren’t sure whether they’d been in Hart on the day of the attack. “We could not definitively say whether you were at risk or not,” he added. “If we were to do it over again, we probably would do it the same.”
That abundance of caution wasn’t without its victims. John Angell, a top staffer for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), was in a meeting room adjacent to Daschle’s suite on Oct. 15 and was given Cipro as a precaution. He now walks with cane because the powerful antibiotic nearly destroyed his Achilles’ tendons. After he sued the drugmaker, Cipro now comes with a warning about its potential effects on tendons.
Erickson said she still sees Angell, who continues to work for Baucus.
“Every time I see him, he is a visible reminder of the damage and the suffering,” she said.
For the staffers involved, the attack wasn’t just limited to the Hart Building. Because investigators failed to decontaminate staffers before they left on the 15th, their family members were potentially exposed.
Wincup said he exposed his parents to his contaminated clothes, and they ended up on antibiotics as well. Erickson said she also worried about her family.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god, did I infect my family?’” she said.
Despite the FBI’s insistence that it had identified the culprit — government scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide when the FBI began to focus on him in 2008 — some of those affected by the attacks expressed lingering doubts about whether the perpetrator has really been caught. Recently, some scientists have suggested that if Ivins did it — and others are not persuaded he did — he must have had an accomplice in order to produce the type of weaponized anthrax that was sent to Daschle.
“I’m not convinced they fingered the right man,” Martin said.
Wincup said, “Whether they got the right person … it certainly appears they did. I hope they did.”
Daschle said doubts have surfaced for some because of the apparent confusion in the FBI in the early days of the investigation and the agency’s mistaken focus on another government scientist, Steven Hatfill. But he said, “I’m reasonably confident and satisfied that [the FBI has] done all they can to come to this conclusion.”
Regardless of who is responsible, Daschle and his staff said the incident brought them closer to each other. Over the years, they have remained in touch even as they went their separate ways after Daschle’s 2004 election loss to GOP Sen. John Thune. The separation from each other just three years after their harrowing ordeal “just added to the grief that any staffer feels when their boss is defeated,” Erickson noted.
Daschle said he keeps in touch with Leslie, mainly through his daughter, who is her friend, and that he attended Leslie’s wedding in recent years.
Martin just had lunch with former Daschle Chief of Staff Laura Petrou a few weeks ago. Wincup, who has gotten together with Leslie and others over the years, is now a lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council. He is married and has a 9-month-old daughter. Leslie works for the Glover Park Group as a lobbyist.
Erickson served as the Democratic representative in the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office, before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appointed her Secretary of the Senate in 2007.
Overall, Wincup said the experience has made him view other terrorist attacks in a new light.
“It has a way of shrinking the world and letting you know that anything could happen to you,” he said. “You could be in a situation where the anthrax letter is opened right next to you. … It lets you know you’re not impervious to these things.”