Oxford Woman, 94, An Unlikely Victim Of Anthrax Attacks
For weeks Ottilie Lundgren hadn’t been able to shake a pesky cold, so when her niece Shirley Davis visited her Oxford home on a Friday morning and found the 94-year-old woman was having difficulty breathing, they went to the hospital.
“I remember she kept telling me, ‘I don’t know why I am so sick. What could have happened to me that I’m still sick?’ I’ve never had anything like this before,’ ” Davis recalled recently. “Oh Lord, if she only knew the truth.”
Lundgren loved to read a good mystery but seemed an unlikely candidate to become a central character in one.
But that is exactly what happened after Davis brought her to Griffin Hospital in Derby on Nov. 16, 2001. For days doctors did tests trying to find out what was making Lundgren so sick. It wasn’t until one doctor tested for anthrax that the reality set in — somehow a mostly housebound elderly woman had been poisoned with the same anthrax that had been sent to U.S. senators and media outlets.
Davis was called back to the hospital and told there was urgent news about Lundgren and that she was not to talk to anyone. When Davis got to Griffin she was taken to a room where there must have been “35 people in there” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI, state police and the state health department. Davis remembers a doctor telling her that “Ottie had been attacked by the anthrax virus.”
When Davis was taken to see Lundgren, she was in isolation, enclosed in a plastic tent.
“They told me to stay away from her, don’t go near her or try to kiss her and that was very upsetting,” Davis said. “I couldn’t rationalize that my poor aunt who didn’t hurt a fly could have been affected by this powder and that there was nothing they could do for her.”
Within days Lundgren became the fifth and last victim of the anthrax attacks that changed the way mail is handled, made Cipro a household drug, created the phrase “person of interest” and led to one of the most expensive and controversial FBI investigations ever.
Even 13 years later Davis still has days when she thinks about the shock of being told Lundgren had anthrax poisoning and the randomness of her aunt’s death.
“I still remember the men in their space suits coming in and vacuuming everywhere — even in my house — trying to find spores,” Davis said. “They went into every single little space they could and tested everything in and around her house.”
Davis said she remembers Lundgren sitting in her living room chair opening her mail and bringing it up close to her face so she could read it.
“She’d complain about all the junk mail she used to get, and then she’d toss it into the trash can,” Davis said.
Investigators believe that one of those pieces of junk mail that Lundgren received crossed paths with one of two anthrax-laden letters sent to Congress that went through a sorting machine in Trenton, N.J.
The violent shaking of the letters through the sorting machines forced some of the highly aerosolized anthrax spores out of the letters onto the machines and other mail that came in contact with them.
That is how two postal employees in Washington, D.C. — Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen — inhaled the anthrax that later killed them. And it’s the reason that post offices from Wallingford to Virginia were closed down and cleaned because of anthrax spores escaping. Overall 22 people were known to have been infected.
Bob Stevens, a photographer with the tabloid Sun in Florida, was the first to die. Investigators believe that victim Kathy Nguyen, a woman who lived alone in a New York City apartment, also died because she inhaled the deadly anthrax from a piece of mail.
Davis said investigators told her that Lundgren’s respiratory problems coupled with her advanced age made her susceptible to the anthrax.