Closure for families of anthrax attack victims

/ Source: The Associated Press

Survivors of the anthrax attacks and relatives of the victims expressed relief Friday that the long-running case appears finally to be closed, but they wondered about questions that may never be answered because of the suicide of suspect Bruce Edward Ivins.

"It's either made right on this side of the grave or the other," said Mary Morris, widow of Washington, D.C., postal worker Thomas Morris Jr. "Nobody gets by with anything. But we do just have to wait on the Lord."

Five people died as a result of the anthrax mailings in 2001, which came soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Another 17 people were sickened with respiratory and skin infections.

Mark Cunningham, op-ed editor for the New York Post, developed an infection on his face after being exposed to the pathogen at work. He woke up Friday morning, turned on the television, and heard that a previously unknown government scientist had taken his life after the FBI focused on him as the chief suspect in the case.

"The suicide is pretty convincing evidence that it was him," said Cunningham, 45. His newspaper was one of the targets of the mysterious letters containing anthrax that were sent to media companies and Senate offices. Cunningham said the infection started as a small pimple on his forehead at the hairline and quickly grew serious. He was cured after being treated with antibiotics for month.

'We will never know for sure'
Cunningham said he hoped the government will make full disclosure of the evidence in the case, but he wondered if some doubts will linger on.

"We will never know for sure — that's life," he said. "But this is good enough for government work. It's better government work than I had expected at this point."

The victims of the attacks came from different walks of life. The first to die was Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at the Sun, a supermarket tabloid published in Boca Raton, Fla. Morris, 55, and 47-year-old Joseph Curseen, worked together at a Washington postal facility that was a hub for sorting the capital's mail. A co-worker remembered Morris as jovial and sincere, while Curseen was serious-minded and religious, and said they complemented each other well. Kathy Nguyen, 61, who had emigrated from Vietnam and lived in the Bronx, worked in a stock room at Manhattan Eye Ear & Throat Hospital, a Children's Hearing Institute.

Leroy Richmond worked with Morris and Curseen at the postal facility in Washington. Richmond was stricken with the more serious respiratory form of anthrax infection and spent 28 days in the hospital under intensive care. The infection caused his lungs to fill up with fluid, so he struggled to breathe. And he got a pounding headache that seemed like it would never go away.

"I made it my prayer and my hope that this is the end of it," Richmond, 64, said Friday. Now retired, he still has to cope with fatigue.

Talk of conspiracy
Richmond said a friend suggested to him Friday that Ivins' death might be the result of some kind of conspiracy, because the scientist "knew too much and had to be eliminated." But Richmond dismissed such speculation. He said he has long believed the perpetrator had to be someone highly skilled at handling anthrax, and with easy access to powerful forms of the bacteria. "I really believe this issue is over now," he said.

The last to die was Ottilie Lundgren, 94, who lived in Oxford, Conn. Her death underscored how random the attacks were, reaching an elderly woman in an isolated town. Lundgren had lived through the tumultuous 20th century, through world wars and the Great Depression, only to lose her life at the start of a new century marked by a very different kind of threat.

Suddenly pews in her church were being checked for anthrax spores. Friends were tested and put on antibiotics.

"I often wondered what was going, and why there were no answers," said Margaret Crowther, a caretaker for Lundgren. "I just hope they find the real answers and settle this once and for all."

Lundgren was known as a well-read and active woman, involved with family, friends and community. Earlier in her life, she had a career as a legal secretary. Family friend Thomas Condon said the memory of the attack still hurts. "I don't think it ever really left the scene here, not completely," he said. "It always stays in your memory."