Photo: Rob Howard
Opening a letter addressed to Tom Brokaw was something Casey Chamberlain had done hundreds of times as a desk assistant at NBC Nightly News in New York. But one day, about a week after 9/11, the childlike scrawl on one envelope caught her attention. "It scared me right away because I thought this is either someone playing a horrible prank or this is someone really creepy and weird," she says. Inside was a note saying "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is great," and what Casey recalls as a granular substance that looked like a cross between brown sugar and sand. She threw the grains in the trash and stacked the letter with the rest of the mail to give Brokaw's assistant, Erin O'Connor.
About 10 days later, the glands in Casey's neck swelled alarmingly, and she developed black spots on her face and legs, like tiny bug bites. She went to the doctor, who thought it might be a reaction to the Accutane medication she was taking, and put her on an antibiotic. "I was very, very ill," she says. "I couldn't get out of bed; I felt like something was running through my entire body."
Erin, coincidentally, was also out sick. But it wasn't until after Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the Florida-based tabloid The Sun, died on October 5 that anyone began to make a connection between the two NBC assistants. A week later, one of Casey's bosses called her in to tell her what they'd pieced together: Stevens had inhaled anthrax from a letter sent to his company. Casey, they believed, had contracted cutaneous anthrax.
"She was a model of cool courage in the way she handled this outrageous act," Brokaw remembers. "She helped all her colleagues in the newsroom get through the ordeal with her resolute calm." But Casey didn't see herself that way. The potentially lethal effects of the toxin terrified her. Even more unnerving was "the simple fact that someone had sent this in the mail, intending to inflict harm on others," she says. Still feeling sick at that point, she was prescribed the antibiotic Cipro for 100 days. Slowly, her physical symptoms improved. The psychological ones did not.
"I definitely suffered from post-traumatic stress, and continue to," Casey says. "Throughout that entire time there were false scares, copycat attacks—I worked in that news environment, and whenever I would hear about or see those happenings anywhere, it brought it all back to me." Also, because she had taken papers from the office home the day she opened the letter, all her clothes, furniture, photos, and mementos had to be destroyed. "What was most traumatic about it was the fact that the substance was in my personal space, what is supposed to be my sanctuary, my safe place," she says. "When that horror makes its way into your home, you think, 'What if it's over there, or on that thing?' You can't relax. Spores can live more than 100 years; they don't die easily."
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