A secret tragedy

Sunday, October 21, 2001

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- On an April morning in 1979, Lazar Karsayev awoke early as usual, drank a cup of tea and walked to work at a ceramics factory. A few hours later, the fit 64-year-old was sent home with what doctors said was a bad cold.

When medics wearing biohazard suits showed up to take him to the hospital the next day, his family suspected something much worse. A few days later, they were taken under police guard to watch Karsayev's coffin -- filled with chlorinated lime and sealed in plastic -- being lowered into one of dozens of fresh graves at the edge of a cemetery.

Doctors told them he died of anthrax, but nobody told them how or why.

A mysterious outbreak of the disease killed at least 68 people 22 years ago in the Russian industrial center of Sverdlovsk, today known as Yekaterinburg. At the time, neither the victims nor their families suspected they had been hit by a biological weapon.

In 1992, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who in 1979 was Communist Party chief in Sverdlovsk, said in an interview that the outbreak was caused by an accident at a germ warfare laboratory. Until that time, the official explanation had always been infected meat.

The laboratory, known as Military Compound 19, formed part of a network of germ factories in the Soviet Union's biological weapons program, which produced hundreds of tons of anthrax.

The Soviet Union joined the Biological Weapons Convention, banning germ warfare, in 1972. But Russian officials admitted later that Moscow violated the treaty for 20 years.

Secret accident

Despite that admission, the Russian military has never provided details about the Sverdlovsk incident, and a shroud of secrecy continues to hang over it and the still functioning compound where the leak occurred.

"Nobody has ever officially told us that this was from biological weapons," said Karsayev's daughter, Lidia Tretyakova. "Nobody has ever apologized."

No official records are available about the outbreak. The 1979 anthrax cases were skipped entirely in the regional epidemiological service's annual report, said Viktor Romanenko, deputy chief of the service. Karsayev's death certificate lists "infection" as the cause of death.

Details of the incident were first described in a 1994 article by Harvard's Matthew Meselson in the journal Science. Meselson and his co-authors found that most of the 77 known patients lived and worked in the southern part of the city, near Military Compound 19, and concluded the outbreak was caused by a spray of anthrax spores originating at the compound.

The leak is assumed to have occurred in the early hours of April 2, about two days before people began getting sick.

"All those who fell ill were people who, for one reason or another, had been outside at night or in the early morning," Romanenko said. Some, like Karsayev, were not outside, but in factories with ventilation systems that sucked in outside air.

Romanenko said he and his colleagues noticed the pattern immediately, but were not free to say so.

Following the official line, local public health officials took meat samples for testing and cracked down on butchers. But they also took measures to prevent the spread of the disease through the air.

In a neighborhood of wooden one-story houses next to the sprawling and heavily guarded Compound 19, residents recalled how immediately after the outbreak, their dirt roads were paved and the roofs and walls of their houses were washed.

House washing in masks

"Nobody told us what was going on," Yelena Klyuchagina said. "We just saw these people in masks washing our houses. There was no information."

Cases of human anthrax occurred a few miles from the compound. But the bacteria had traveled in smaller concentrations into outlying villages, where it killed animals.

Alexandra Sankova, her husband and nine children were quarantined in their house for a month during the outbreak.

"Our ram died of anthrax, so they isolated us," said the 75-year-old resident of Bolshoye Sidelnikovo, a village about 12 miles from Yekaterinburg. In Sverdlovsk, Tretyakova and her family were vaccinated and treated with antibiotics.

"They told us that all of us who had contact with him would also die," she said. "Not even our relatives came to see us."

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