On a crisp fall day in 2001, this quintessential New England town was a sleepy little bedroom community where things like major crime and especially terrorism were words heard on the national news and incidents that happened somewhere else.
Then an elderly woman opened her mail the same way she had done most of her adult life. Suddenly, the world’s news eye set it sights on quaint Oxford, Conn., a former farming community that had a population of less than 10,000 at the time. Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old churchgoing widow who kept to herself, had apparently become the latest victim of international terrorism after she inhaled anthrax that was in a mailed envelope she opened.
“Nobody ever surmised that this would be possible in little old Oxford,” said selectman Dave McKane, a lifelong Oxford resident who was in office for one day, along with then First Selectman Kathy Johnson, when Lundgren died.
At a time when terrorism was at the forefront of most people’s minds following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, international news crews flocked to the Naugatuck Valley – in Oxford, where Lundgren lived and inhaled the anthrax, and to Derby, where she died days later at Griffin Hospital.
News crews from as far away as Japan parked up and down Route 67 and Great Hill Road, near where Lundgren lived by herself - she had no children - at 16 Edgewood Road.
News trucks infiltrated the town from all over the planet. Emergency crews had Lundgren’s house cordoned off, so reporters and photographers tried to sneak through woods to get closer to the home.
It was like nothing this tight-knit community had ever seen before.
People were being told to wear rubber gloves and masks when they opened their mail – and some still do – while health experts tested areas that Lundgren frequented, such as Fritz’ Snack Bar on Route 67 and Immanuel Lutheran Church. All of those tests came back negative.
“We tried to tell people to go on with their daily lives,” McKane said. “We told them not to live in fear because that plays right into the fears of what terrorists want you to do.”
McKane, who had minimal experience with the statewide press before the attacks, said he became fairly close with a Connecticut TV reporter, who interviewed him and his daughter in their home on Thanksgiving Day.
McKane said his wife Linda, the assistant town clerk in Oxford, didn’t know about the interview until she returned home later that evening and saw it on TV.
“It was certainly a memorable time for a very unfortunate reason,” he said, adding that his friend saw the news on TV in Mexico.
Later that evening, McKane said he thought of police officers and other emergency responders who were working around the clock in Oxford on their holiday. He said Linda packed a bunch of turkey sandwiches and Dave brought some, along with coffee and pie, to the scene. They had a mini-Thanksgiving dinner in a state trooper’s car.
It was a small example of how Oxford residents pulled together in the most difficult and scariest of times in the town’s more than 200-year history.
“I will never forget what a great job all of our emergency responders did in such a difficult circumstance,” McKane said.
Getting the call
Oxford Fire Chief Scott Pelletier, the town’s emergency management director, said he remembers getting a phone call around 5 p.m. telling him to go to a press conference at state police barracks Troop A in Southbury.
From that point on, everything was kind of put in fast forward, Pelletier said.
The press conference began almost immediately with then Gov. John Rowland speaking to the public from the police barracks.
Oxford emergency crews went to Lundgren’s home to provide lighting and water for Hazmat teams that went in and out of the house in attempts to decontaminate the area. Meanwhile, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teamed up with state Health Department officials to deal with the situation.
Pelletier said firefighters took specialized training immediately following the anthrax incident and responded to several false alarms from residents who thought they, too, had seen anthrax in their mail. The call volume for local emergency crews spiked greatly, he said.
“It was a strenuous time not just for emergency responders but for residents as well,” he said. “This thing just kind of took Oxford by storm. We had media all over the place. Not to mention it was Kathy Johnson’s first day as first selectman, and she just kind of got thrown into the fire.”
Keeping the town informed
Johnson, who served one term and is no longer involved in politics, got a phone call from the Pomperaug Health District on her first day on the job.
“He said, ‘I wanted you to be aware in case you hear it on the news that you might have a case of anthrax poisoning,’” she recalled. ‘I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’”
But it clearly wasn’t a joke.
Johnson didn’t know what to think about the news, and she vowed not to jump to any conclusions until she had heard more. Later that evening, she was on her way to her second job in New Haven when she heard Gov. Rowland on the radio talking about the incident.
Johnson called her husband and said she was turning back toward Oxford, which was good because the state police had called her home saying they wanted her at Troop A immediately for the news conference. With McKane by her side – “Dave held my hand through the whole situation,” she recalls – Johnson addressed a sea of media.
“I’ve never seen so many reporters in one place in my life,” she said. “I just tried to remember that we were talking to the people of Oxford. I wanted to get the message out that we are not going to jump to any conclusions about what happened and that we were going to keep a clear head and we’d get through this.”
She said a resident told her later that he was skeptical government officials would not tell citizens everything that was happening. At that moment, Johnson said she vowed to get as much information as possible for residents.
That proved far harder than it appeared, Johnson said.
She tried to head to the Lundgren home but was met by state police officers who didn’t care about the position she held, she said, and told her to turn around. Johnson said she told police that if they didn’t let her go to the house to speak with FBI officials and health inspectors, she was going to tell the media that the first selectman was being kept out of the loop while trying to get information for the public.
“They put me right into that police cruiser and drove me to the house in a flash,” she said. “They didn’t want that kind of press. I at least wanted to tell the people of Oxford that I went up that hill to get them all the information I could.”
She later was invited to tour the FBI’s New Haven office and lambasted the state's head epidemiologist for not publicly addressing the concerns of Oxford residents, Johnson said in a phone interview with Oxford Patch.
“My one and only goal was to keep my promise to the town that I would keep them informed,” she said. “I wanted the world to see that we could be just as sophisticated as New York City and that we, too, could handle a crisis with dignity and confidence and with that level of sophistication.”
When asked by the media months after the incident how she got through the difficult situation, Johnson said she had been prepared by dealing with her own tragedy. A couple years prior, her son was severely injured in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“After that and what happened to this woman who only went to her mailbox made me realize one thing,” Johnson said. “That the tranquility and quality of one’s life can change in a nanosecond.”
Things didn’t get easier for Johnson over her tenure as first selectman. Her husband, Wayne, was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which had spread throughout his body; he later recovered and is now cancer free. Between dealing with the diagonsis and other town issues, Johnson said she suffered some personal setbacks, including three nervous breakdowns while in office.
“But I came to work every day and did my job,” she said. “And I kept my promise to the town that I would always keep them informed and would be honest.”
While those first few weeks were exceptionally trying – Johnson said her husband cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the first time that year and she wasn’t at the table - McKane says it prepared her and Johnson for everything that was to come in the next two years.
A journalist’s perspective
Oxford resident Joanne Pelton was the Naugatuck Valley Bureau Chief for the New Haven Register in the fall of 2001. She was making calls to police and firefighters when she got word from a source about an anthrax case at Griffin Hospital.
“At that time it was the fifth case of anthrax in the entire country, and we had it right here,” she said.
For a reporter, that call is both sad for the loss of life but also somewhat exciting because it’s such a major, international news story.
Pelton said she went to Griffin and was standing next to two journalists from Japan.
“There were sound trucks from all over the world,” she said. “I had to park like a half-mile away.”
She said it was a sad case and people were scared because terrorism had now come to the suburbs and people were being attacked through the mail system. People were worried this was going to happen all over the world, which is why reporters flocked to the story, Pelton said.
“Nobody knew if this was terrorism at its worst, or what to think, but we didn’t have time to really think about that,” she said. “We had to get the news out to people. To me, this was the biggest story of my career. …Little Oxford, which I had covered for several years, was at the epicenter of the national anthrax scare.”
Pelton vividly remembers health inspectors in big white suits going in and out of buildings in Oxford and Lundgren’s house. “I remember how they took off their shoes and just left them on the lawn before going inside,” she said. “I thought that was odd.”
Like Pelletier, Pelton remembers false alarms, such as one in Seymour where a man died and people originally suspected he was a victim of anthrax inhalation. It turned out to be a false alarm.
“This (Oxford) event changed the way everybody looked at things,” Pelton said. “Everybody was suspicious of everything. It really made us think of how vulnerable we were.”
Who was behind the attack?
As suspicion swirled around whether mail was safe to open or whether there would be more attacks nearby, there was a similar concern that the FBI was looking into: Just who was responsible for the anthrax deaths that had people scared to go to their mailboxes?
At first, the public blamed terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, the group behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. However, years of investigation have led the FBI to believe late Army microbiologist Dr. Bruce Ivins was the man responsible.
The conclusion by a nine-member panel of psychiatric and forensic experts in a 285-page report lent credence to the FBI’s controversial finding that Ivins - who committed suicide in 2008 amid a storm of controversy about his involvement in the case – was indeed the culprit.
“Dr. Ivins was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out, and he had the motivation and the means," the panel wrote. .
It is widely believed that Lundgren was never intended to be a target and that her mail was cross-contaminated with mail meant to go the office of a federal government official.
Leaving a legacy
The city of Danbury recently received a part of the Ottlie W. Lundgren Mobile Field Hospital, according to the city’s website. The site states that the $1.5 million field hospital is currently being staged in Danbury for use as well as for use of other towns and cities in the region.
The following information about the hospital is from the state Department of Public Health’s website: “The Ottilie W. Lundgren Memorial Field Hospital (MFH) is a mobile facility designed for deployment in either 25-bed increments or in its full complement of 100 beds to any location in the state in response to a mass casualty event, a local emergency that disrupts the integrity of a healthcare facility’s infrastructure, or a Statewide public health emergency that overwhelms the existing health care infrastructure. The MFH is not intended to supplant local first responders or healthcare institutions, but serves to support their operations.”
Read more about Lundgren, who was widely considered a sweet woman who frequented church, local businesses and the Naugatuck YMCA, here in this Hartford Courant story from 2001.
Living with the knowledge that ‘we had a terrorist scare’
Scott Pelletier, Oxford’s fire chief and emergency management director, said he almost cannot believe it’s been 10 years already since the incident occurred, though he remembers details like it was yesterday. Though this past year has been trying for emergency crews – what with floods in February and March near the Housatonic River, Tropical Storm Irene and the fall nor’easter – he said the anthrax case may be the most memorable public safety issue in the town’s history.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax scares, emergency responders have undergone numerous hours of training to deal with a terrorist attack, he said.
“When we go to a training, people will talk like, ‘God forbid something ever happens here,’” Pelletier said. “And we say, ‘Wait a minute: we had one. We had a terrorist scare. Remember, Oxford, Connecticut – anthrax? And then they remember.”
People in Oxford, however, will likely never forget.