13. The Aftermath

They won’t need a boat to remember me by.

— Plum Island Director Roger G. Breeze

Hurricane Bob’s devastating effects ranged far beyond Plum Island. During its run up the East Coast, over seven inches of rain fell for twelve hours straight. A total of eighteen people, from South Carolina to Maine, perished in the storm, which left almost $2 billion in damage in its wake. Like a sports team retires player numbers, the National Hurricane Center retires hurricane names; when they cause enough death and destruction their names are never repeated. The name “Bob” was retired, and it went into the annals of history as the eighth costliest Atlantic storm in United States history.

Established when the facility began operations a half-century ago, the comprehensive Plum Island biological safety manual sets forth explicit “Emergency Hurricane Procedures.” Lying in perhaps the most vulnerable spot in the northeast hurricane corridor, Plum Island played host to violent fall weather as soon as the USDA arrived — and long before. Storms in the 1700s and 1800s wrecked numerous schooners on its rocks, whose victims’ bodies (often anonymous) were buried on the island; during the 1950s, said an old employee, every day after a rough storm hit, another person resigned from staff. A gale swept through the east end in November of 1953 as finishing touches were being put on Lab 257. Much like Bob, this storm struck Plum Island dead on with devastating force. Tidal waves rushed in from Gardiner’s Bay, wrecking one of the Army’s boats and flooding three feet deep against Lab 257’s four-foot concrete barrier, recently installed and dried. The T-boat was found the next day, dragged across the beach and broken to pieces. Channels connecting the marshy ponds with the bay were cut wide open from waves. Seawater flooded in, creating a brackish environment that not only threatened the freshwater wells, but could shear off twenty acres at Pine Point and erase the land buffer between Lab 257 and the ocean. Awaiting the inevitable destruction of the next nor’easter, the Army Corps of Engineers sandbagged the channels shut and filled the area with tons of jetty rocks. Though Lab 257 was saved, the close call should have called into question — before its doors opened — the decision to locate a germ lab on the island’s southwest shore. A Plum Island hurricane inundation table shows Lab 257 completely inundated with water during a CAT-3 hurricane’s twelve-foot surge elevations.

Knowing firsthand the potential for disaster, the scientists who founded the animal disease laboratory on Plum Island drew up the hurricane emergency plan:

The aftermath conditions of a severe storm or other natural caused disaster could severely limit or prevent the emergency operations of facilities….Potential breaching of the agent contaminant aspects of [Plum Island] facilities and escape of disease agents could also occur in this type of emergency condition.

Upon issuance of a twenty-four-hour hurricane warning by the National Weather Service, procedures dictate securing laboratory buildings to protect against damage. This includes covering all windows with one-quarter inch plywood and sandbagging buildings to minimize water damage in low-lying areas. The emergency plan specifically mentions sandbagging Lab 257, but when Hurricane Bob was on its way, no one sandbagged 257 or the power plant. Because of this oversight, the power plant flooded. It was only through the ingenuity and hard work of men like Phillip Piegari that the generators were saved, averting the loss of power to the entire island and a far greater catastrophe.

In addition to securing the buildings, the emergency procedures mandated additional safety measures for approaching hurricanes:

a. Water tower must be filled to capacity;

b. All underground electrical feeders shall be utilized;

c. Stand-by generators must be operational and be attended by competent operators;

d. All sewage in Buildings #102 and #257 must be processed and tanks emptied; and

e. Employees must be advised to have food, water, prescription medicines, etc., within their respective work stations.

Management failed to follow these procedures after receiving the hurricane warning for Hurricane Bob. In fact, they didn’t follow a single one. Item a. simply did not occur. Items b. and c. were impossible, thanks to management’s disregard of safety when it failed to repair Lab 257’s underground power cable. If procedure d. had been followed, sewage would not have spilled onto the floor and contaminated the building and the men of B Crew. Finally, the lack of proper provisions mandated by item e. forced Phillip Piegari to leave containment to obtain provisions for the crew. “I don’t think they expected the hurricane to be of that magnitude, that it could do such damage. But they knew it was coming and didn’t prepare for it,” one crew member later reasoned.

The government broke Dr. Jerry Callis’s cardinal rule. “Each person,” Dr. Callis wrote in the introduction to his three-inch-thick island safety manual circulated to all new employees, “has a moral and legal responsibility for assuring that maximum biological safety precautions will be taken in all operations.” A reckless disregard of Callis’s edict and the standard emergency safety procedures caused Lab 257 to come apart at the seams during Hurricane Bob. Those responsible for Plum Island safety, notably island Director Dr. Roger Breeze, compromised the safety of both the island’s employees and the public at large. It is only by a stroke of good fortune that contamination didn’t noticeably spread to Long Island, Connecticut, and beyond.

* * *

The government refused to admit anything went wrong in Lab 257. Dr. Plowman’s letter of commendation didn’t acknowledge that a power outage actually occurred. Management treated B Crew’s thirty-two-hour dance with a hurricane like a typical day on Plum Island. Over time, the men found other employment or retired. A few continued to work on Plum Island for the private contractor, at a fraction of their previous wages, without any meaningful retirement benefits.

Soon after the hurricane, Phillip Piegari developed flulike symptoms — constant nausea, severe headaches, and hot-and-cold flashes. His family physician requested the blood sample that Plum Island officials took when he began employment. The government refused to release it. After a News-day article uncovered the government’s stonewalling, officials gave in and released a portion of the blood sample. After batteries of tests, neither his doctor nor doctors from the State University Medical Center at Stony Brook were able to diagnose Phillip’s illness. Like all standard medical centers, the facility was not equipped to check his blood against exotic “animal viruses,” many of which can infect humans. One location, however, did have the ability to test for them: the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. They refused to help. Instead, the scientists insisted that Phillip was a disgruntled laid-off worker suffering from a typical Lyme disease infection. But his medical doctors flatly refused to diagnose Phillip’s condition as Lyme disease. The symptoms went undiagnosed and unabated for six years before they gradually subsided, though he continues to suffer occasional mysterious relapses where he contracts viral-like symptoms. Over a decade later, Phillip Piegari tries to lead a generally healthy, normal life. Nonetheless, he is certain that he was infected with an unknown virus from his contact with contaminated sewage and poisoned air in Lab 257 on that fateful night. And Plum Island’s determination to prevent an accurate diagnosis only furthers that likelihood.

* * *

There is reason to believe Phillip wasn’t the only one who contracted something that night.

Two years after he helped rescue Lab 257 from certain meltdown, Stanley “Shine” Mickaliger came down with relentless arthritic conditions. First he had a difficult time bending his elbow. Then his legs hurt him when he walked. And then he couldn’t walk at all. “For eighteen months, I was deadly sick — my wife would have to fit me into the car to go see the local doctor.” Shine’s country physician put him on a heavy regimen of cortisone steroid shots to bring down inflammation, which eased some of the pain, but replaced it with a dogged malaise and awful bruises from bumping into things around the house. Plum Island viewed Shine’s illness the same way they did Phillip’s and those of others — with denial and with contempt. Unlike Phillip, Shine couldn’t offer his doctors a baseline blood sample, since Plum Island never took one from him during his twenty-year career. When he asked a Plum Island safety officer for help in finding out the cause of his condition, the official told him there was no money in the budget to do it, and that they didn’t have the dime for it. “It’s hard to prove,” says Shine, “and I wasn’t bled by Plum Island, so who knows?” He couldn’t point to the Lab 257 meltdown as the definitive cause, however, because that fateful weekend wasn’t the first time he was exposed to contagion.

On Wednesday morning, March 2, 1983, a sewer line leaking from Animal Room 264, which had cattle infected with the Isfahan strain of vesicular stomatitis, spilled into the equipment room. Sludge splashed on Shine and two other building engineers taking their coffee break. Shine and another worker immediately placed plastic tape over the gushing pipe and flooded the floor area with hydrochloric acid.

Ten minutes after the crew’s panicked phone call, safety officers Drs. Walker and Richmond barged into the equipment room and ordered the area locked down and decontaminated. The crew locked the corridor door and sealed it with duct tape on both sides. Food was incinerated, and clothes were stripped and stuffed into the steam autoclave. The workers mopped the corridor floor with Vanodine disinfectant solution and then poured a full-strength gallon of One-Stroke into the drain in Room 264. An hour later, a safety tech, wearing heavy rubber gloves and a full-face respirator, removed the duct tape and drained the trap into a bucket. Engineers located a small hole in the pipe, and Shine patched it up with silicone. The room was deconned a third time and finally declared clean late in the afternoon. After ninety-six hours of close monitoring, miraculously neither Shine nor the ten others exposed to the contaminated waste came down with any disease. Following biosafety rules to the T, it required seven and a half hours for the engineering and safety department to control a tiny pinhole in a pipe during Jerry Callis’s administration, with far more efficiency and concern than the next regime would devote to a full biological meltdown.

After the meltdown, with no help from Plum Island and no diagnosis from his doctor, Shine turned to the one person who could help him recover — his wife, Fran. “My best doctor was my wife. She took all these books out of the local library, and threw away my meds.” Fran put him on a strict regimen of exercise, good food, and positive thinking, and he slowly regained himself. To this very day, he has no idea what his illness was. A possibility is one of one of the feared “slow” viruses, so named not for the tempo of virus growth, but for the protracted time of the disease’s course, which can be months or years.[47]

The laymen tried to figure out what they had contracted on Plum Island, and pleaded for answers from their North Fork doctors, family general practitioners better suited to bandaging knee scrapes and prescribing antibiotics for ear infections. “You are exposed to so many viruses over there,” says Shine from experience. “They say it won’t bother you, that the germs aren’t zoonotic, that they won’t transfer to you. Then you become ill, you tell your doctors you are ill, and that you work on Plum Island. And look here — they have no tests for you. Hepatitis they have a test for— but for Rift Valley fever? And USDA, their response to us always was, ‘Prove it to us. Show us what you caught here and how you caught it.’ Now how the hell I am supposed to do that?”

In a newspaper article that appeared the day after B Crew was commended for its “quick and decisive action” and then summarily fired, Plum Island officials stated there was never any danger to laboratory staff or to the public during the hurricane. Manuel Barbeito, an island safety officer, told Newsday, “There is no potential problem here…this is a safe facility,” and stated that the laboratory air filters operated during the hurricane without power and prevented diseases from escaping. When Phillip, per his physician’s instructions, asked for a list of what he was exposed to during the storm, an official handed him a letter. “It said the only things we were exposed to were paint, paint thinner, and oil — that’s all.” Apprised of the hurricane incident by Plum Island employees and worried local residents, Congressman George Hochbrueckner wrote a letter to the Department of Agriculture, demanding information on the storm’s effects on the island’s laboratories.

Though the government told the public nothing had happened, steps were being taken on Plum Island that reflected a different belief. A few days after the Newsday story, a portable generator the size of a tractor-trailer appeared alongside Lab 257. With the underground cable still shorted out, the portable generator provided the emergency power the lab had lacked for months, and covered the momentary power breaks when both the overheads and underground cable were restored. Though management claimed the biological containment system had worked properly through the hurricane, technicians replaced all of Lab 257’s outside air dampers with new units. New procedures were adopted to regularly inspect the air dampers — which, according to the government, also worked properly when Hurricane Bob hit. Henceforth, after even a minor power interruption, employees said safety officers climbed atop Lab 257 to personally inspect the roof and ascertain that outside air dampers were closing properly. And just days before they were canned, B Crew was finally trained on how to use the face respirators. “They were afraid of lawsuits,” guesses Shine, “so they did this to have it on record that we were all trained.”

Today Shine and Fran spend their days working around the house, hustling firewood, and taking long walks along the beach, pointing out sea turtles and searching for washed-up fishing lures. Hurricane Bob, searing pain, and the recurring nightmares are now in the past. In his work cabin, out back behind his modest home, Shine keeps perhaps the world’s largest collection of jigs and lures. Thousands of multicolored and feathered wooden, shiny metal, and plastic lures adorn the walls and ceilings of the dark brown cabin, warmed up in the winter by a small space heater. When he’s not fishing with his two older brothers, Charlie and Eddie, aged eighty-six and eighty-one, he’s hunched over the workbench fashioning the lures from broken ones found strewn on the beach. Shine’s at his happiest hammering, sawing, gluing, and picking away at the rigs that will trick next season’s blues and stripers into thinking they have fixed their mouths onto something delicious to eat — only to realize it’ll be Shine, not the poor fish, doing all the eating.

Phillip still lives out on the east end, working for the county now, spending his free time on his beloved boat with his black Labrador, Jezebel. A few years ago, zyta contracted breast cancer, underwent extensive chemotherapy, and thankfully pulled through. The cancer survivor now works as a translator and was recently honored at a police department banquet for lending her bilingual skills to help solve a murder case that had gone unsolved for years.

THE BREEZE SUBSIDES

Dr. Roger Breeze left Plum Island in 1995 for a better career opportunity. His two predecessors had been honored by the ferryboats M. S. Shahan and J.J. Callis. “They won’t need a boat to remember me by,” Breeze told a Newsday reporter who asked him about his legacy. He was even more direct with me when we spoke. “My memorial has to do with the people I got there. I’m not interested in any damn boats and buildings. Facilities and boats don’t do the research. People do. You can set out a stack of my scientific papers, and I’ll be judged by those. I come back to this — it’s the glory at all levels, and not in a negative kind of way.”

Roger Breeze drew responses out of people, whether they were his superiors, his scientists, or his support workers. A head Washington-based USDA official said, “Some people just think he’s the best — and some don’t.” From that distant official’s vantage point, Dr. Breeze was “innovative and dynamic.” He had reworked Plum Island’s entire scientific program, rebuilt the facility, and saved Plum Island from imminent demise.

Ed Hollreiser sees Breeze as a “strange guy, very cunning — he’d call me in for little chats and tell me things that he said he didn’t wanted repeated, but he really wanted me to spread the word.” Plum Island safety officer Tom Sawicki says, “Breeze was here for a reason, he did what he had to do, and a lot of people didn’t like it.” Fran Demorest says, “It was his stepping-stone. And he made enemies there.”

Dr. Robert Shope, who had lived with Breeze for a time in Connecticut, takes a middle view. “He did some things that weren’t too popular with his superiors at USDA. And he may have gotten rid of some people at Plum who were deadwood, and in that sense, he wasn’t very popular. But I think he was part of the driving force of the island.” When asked to compare him to his predecessor, Shope thought of Breeze as “a totally different type of person — and still is. He’s a wheeler-dealer type, and Callis was very conservative and played by the book and that sort of thing. Just two different people.”

“My problem with Roger,” says Dr. Carol House, “is that he still has an influence. He still shows up at town meetings and stands in the back, hovering. He still has a large influence over there, and he has pulled potential [Plum Island director] candidates.”

“Roger’s very hard to talk about,” Dr. Jim House says, slowly, measuring his words. “Not one of the brighter moments in Plum Island history. Roger had a way of manipulating situations so he was always politically on top. No matter what he did, he would come out smelling like a rose. He was very, very clever.

“He did make strides, enhancing the amount of molecular virology done, but he even took that to an extreme. He was somewhat of a visionary, and he’s into biological warfare, his new thing now. But he didn’t have the vision or skills as a manager to run Plum in a smooth and productive manner. I didn’t have a lot of respect for him scientifically. He was selling genetically resistant animals, and we didn’t do genetics of animals. We had this genetically resistant cow, and transgenic pigs. Of course that never went anywhere.

“A lack of perspective — of all the things you’d say about him, that would be the one — a lack of perspective.”

* * *

The two research groups at Plum Island are without question the best of their kind in the world,” boasts Dr. Breeze, “and that wasn’t true when I went there. If there’s one thing I do know about very, very well, it’s how to motivate scientists to go beyond what they think they can do — that’s what I do best.” But in some cases, the science on Plum Island may actually have been set back. Proof of that, says Dr. Richard Endris, is that some three years after the four scientists had been dismissed, one of Dr. Breeze’s new recruits reestablished and set up — from scratch and at great cost — the same African swine fever tick colony research that Breeze disbanded upon his arrival. As for the new laboratory facility, it included a new animal isolation wing, and a fancy sandstone two-story brick office complex slapped across the front of Lab 101. The brown brick and shiny glass fagade conceals the deteriorating 1956 laboratory facility behind it.

Retired from government service, John Boyle still follows the career path of his old boss. “You saw what happened after Roger left Plum Island — he became an associate area director, he then became an area director. Now he is a big-time guy in Washington.” Dr. Breeze is the associate administrator for “special interagency programs” for Agricultural Research Service. With his boss, Floyd Horn, at the Department of Homeland Security, Breeze oversees a good part of the USDA’s scientific research. Undoubtedly, the steep trajectory of his career path in America trumps the sluggish thirty-two-step ladder he left behind at Glasgow University.

Is it possible that Dr. Breeze was blinded by his own ambition? “He is a very talented guy, and cares very deeply,” says Boyle. “I think he cares so much that maybe it even overrides his talent, because he is so tenacious, once he sets out to do something, it will get done. But he really cares about science — good science. It’s why he took a liking to me, because I worked so hard to get him the ferryboat.” Blinded by the glory of science, or blinded by unadulterated ambition — or perhaps both — Dr. Breeze’s curriculum vitae soared while the people of Plum Island tumbled and the island itself crumbled.

In the wake of that unbridled progress, people’s lives changed, and not necessarily for the better.

“If this place wasn’t going to be different,” Breeze told a reporter, reflecting on his tenure, “it was going to be gone.”

For certain, Roger Breeze had made Plum Island different.

“Living with success,” he says, “is harder than living with failure.”

Roger Breeze wanted to be a vet because the local veterinarian was the most successful person who came by his family’s sixty-acre dairy farm in the north of England. The Breezes milked cows and raised chickens in the 1950s. They delivered creamy milk each morning to their customers’ doors, along with fresh eggs and chickens, eking out a living by profiting on both production and delivery.

Roger’s idea was to follow in that country vet’s footsteps. When he was seventeen, he attended vet school at the University of Glasgow in nearby Scotland, one of the oldest universities in the world. Though it wasn’t his original plan, upon graduation he was given the coveted opportunity to teach at Glasgow. It was a prestigious appointment he couldn’t turn down. To help make ends meet, he opened a local vet practice and worked nights and weekends. “I had some crazy nights,” Breeze told Outside magazine:

Once I had just finished pulling a newborn pig that was stuck in its mother’s womb when I get another call about a sick dog. I go right over, knock on the door, and a bunch of Hell’s Angels answer. They’re all looking at me kind of funny, but I’m too worn out to care. I examine the dog and see right away that it’s too far gone with distemper. So I take that dog out back and shoot it. The bikers pay me my fee, but they’re staring at me wide-eyed, like I’m some kind of lunatic. It’s not until I’m back in my car looking at myself in the rearview mirror that I see that my face and hair are all blotched and matted with pig placenta. I looked like the psycho vet from hell.

Two years into his professorship Breeze emigrated to America — a bold and unconventional move. He saw that young go-getters like himself, no matter how bright they were or how hard they worked, would be shunted into Glasgow’s faculty caste system. There were eighteen veterinary pathology positions in all of Britain, and a slow thirty-two-lockstep ladder of advancement. Every professor parked on the same step was paid the same meager salary. “It didn’t matter whether you taught Sanskrit or law,” he remembers. ” ‘As long as there is still death, there’s hope,’ we used to say.”

Roger Breeze disliked the stuffy peerage. What does your father do? Who do you know? What high school did you attend? No one seemed to care about what was really important — one’s talent and ability to perform. “Can you imagine people in America asking, ‘Where did he go to high school?’ ” Breeze asks. “How the hell would anybody know where to look, let alone care?” The religious discrimination also bothered him. Once a man “of great power” at Glasgow asked him to return to his alma mater to teach a discipline he didn’t know. When Breeze explained his lack of knowledge in the discipline, the man said it didn’t matter, saying, “There are too many English Catholics up here teaching and we need more Scottish Protestants.” Ironically, Breeze was neither a Scot nor a Protestant — but with his University of Glasgow pedigree, they assumed he was.

All those stodgy trappings — and the royal mahogany paneling and leather furniture — never aroused him. No one in America cared what the laboratory lobby looked like and what the scientists’ last names were, so long as they produced great science. In America, Breeze was more at home than he ever was in Britain. “Here it’s ‘On with the job!’ That’s what I like.”

he sprightly librarian Frances Demorest was now the longest-serving employee on Plum Island, and her seniority carried a lot of weight among the Plum Island family. When the sky started falling, many of them ran to her, shared their problems, even cried away their woes on her shoulder.

Well spoken and outspoken, Fran resolved to do something, and in 1990 she wrote Congressman Hochbrueckner a six-page single-spaced letter carefully detailing everything she heard. “If I should be harassed and then forced to take my retirement,” Fran wrote, “I shall do so. But I feel that someone has to attempt to stop what is being done to and at Plum Island. I started employment on March 15th, 1954, and am still very active, in good health, maintain an impeccable leave record, and desire to continue working at PIADC.” She proceeded to describe the firing of the four scientists, the ferryboat escapade, the inequitable perks afforded to new scientists, and now the privatization debacle. “This is a lengthy letter,” she closed, “and I hope it has provided fuel, facts, and additional information…looking forward to you taking the ‘bull by the horns.’ ” Following Fran Demorest from that point, one had to wonder if Dr. Roger Breeze had somehow come upon a copy of her courageous letter.

Breeze was enamored with The Silence of the Lambs, the thriller that mentions Plum Island as a summer getaway for the evil Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He actually decorated his office with a life-sized cutout of the cannibalistic Dr. Lecter. Breeze’s next move seemed like a page right out of Thomas Harris’s novel. Soon after she wrote the letter, he ordered Fran to take a new assignment: the sixty-seven-year-old grandmother was relegated to the murky basement of Building 14 for a special project in Central Files — the obliteration of Central Files. In a cruel twist, the longtime assistant librarian was forced to discard Plum Island’s entire library of records. “I was ordered to destroy everything— everything! I was to clean out all of it, because he said there was no more need for it.” Exiled to the musty catacombs of the hundred-year-old Army hospital, Fran destroyed forty years of historical records — they were shredded, bagged, and lined up in the dank hallway awaiting the incinerator. What about the preservation of Plum Island’s past? “Breeze didn’t give a damn about the island’s history,” says Dr. Gregg. “He wanted everything thrown out.”

“When he took me off my job and put me down in that basement,” says Fran, “it just felt humiliating.” Barely finished with bagging the shredded records, she was transferred again, to the telephone switchboard in the guardhouse. While trying her best to handle her new responsibility over the next two months, Fran became gradually lethargic and had to be hospitalized. Her doctor diagnosed her with bilateral severe maxillary sinusitis.

She was unsure of the cause of that condition — the otherwise healthy Fran had never before felt tightness in her chest and sinus pain — until a scientist checking in with her after her hospital stay put his finger on it. Unknowingly, Fran had been inhaling insidious formaldehyde vapors seeping into the switchboard room. When notified of this, Plum Island’s brass had the solution. She was transferred to the rusted, corrugated steel warehouse at the harbor, to chug around on a grimy forklift and record inventory. Physically weakened and mentally drained from the abuse, Fran Demorest quit her job (“I took my retirement,” she prefers to say with pride). She wasn’t surprised by the antics — she had predicted them when she wrote her letter.

“Fran needed to be fired because you couldn’t change her,” remembers John Boyle. “Fired or transferred into some other job where she wasn’t involved in everybody’s business — I think we eliminated her job. I’m not certain.”

And, thought Breeze and his minions, that was one less voice they had to contend with from the Plum Island peanut gallery.

Hurricane Bob’s devastating effects ranged far beyond Plum Island. During its run up the East Coast, over seven inches of rain fell for twelve hours straight. A total of eighteen people, from South Carolina to Maine, perished in the storm, which left almost $2 billion in damage in its wake. Like a sports team retires player numbers, the National Hurricane Center retires hurricane names; when they cause enough death and destruction their names are never repeated. The name “Bob” was retired, and it went into the annals of history as the eighth costliest Atlantic storm in United States history.

Established when the facility began operations a half-century ago, the comprehensive Plum Island biological safety manual sets forth explicit “Emergency Hurricane Procedures.” Lying in perhaps the most vulnerable spot in the northeast hurricane corridor, Plum Island played host to violent fall weather as soon as the USDA arrived — and long before. Storms in the 1700s and 1800s wrecked numerous schooners on its rocks, whose victims’ bodies (often anonymous) were buried on the island; during the 1950s, said an old employee, every day after a rough storm hit, another person resigned from staff. A gale swept through the east end in November of 1953 as finishing touches were being put on Lab 257. Much like Bob, this storm struck Plum Island dead on with devastating force. Tidal waves rushed in from Gardiner’s Bay, wrecking one of the Army’s boats and flooding three feet deep against Lab 257’s four-foot concrete barrier, recently installed and dried. The T-boat was found the next day, dragged across the beach and broken to pieces. Channels connecting the marshy ponds with the bay were cut wide open from waves. Seawater flooded in, creating a brackish environment that not only threatened the freshwater wells, but could shear off twenty acres at Pine Point and erase the land buffer between Lab 257 and the ocean. Awaiting the inevitable destruction of the next nor’easter, the Army Corps of Engineers sandbagged the channels shut and filled the area with tons of jetty rocks. Though Lab 257 was saved, the close call should have called into question — before its doors opened — the decision to locate a germ lab on the island’s southwest shore. A Plum Island hurricane inundation table shows Lab 257 completely inundated with water during a CAT-3 hurricane’s twelve-foot surge elevations.

Knowing firsthand the potential for disaster, the scientists who founded the animal disease laboratory on Plum Island drew up the hurricane emergency plan:

The aftermath conditions of a severe storm or other natural caused disaster could severely limit or prevent the emergency operations of facilities….Potential breaching of the agent contaminant aspects of [Plum Island] facilities and escape of disease agents could also occur in this type of emergency condition.

Upon issuance of a twenty-four-hour hurricane warning by the National Weather Service, procedures dictate securing laboratory buildings to protect against damage. This includes covering all windows with one-quarter inch plywood and sandbagging buildings to minimize water damage in low-lying areas. The emergency plan specifically mentions sandbagging Lab 257, but when Hurricane Bob was on its way, no one sandbagged 257 or the power plant. Because of this oversight, the power plant flooded. It was only through the ingenuity and hard work of men like Phillip Piegari that the generators were saved, averting the loss of power to the entire island and a far greater catastrophe.

In addition to securing the buildings, the emergency procedures mandated additional safety measures for approaching hurricanes:

a. Water tower must be filled to capacity;

b. All underground electrical feeders shall be utilized;

c. Stand-by generators must be operational and be attended by competent operators;

d. All sewage in Buildings #102 and #257 must be processed and tanks emptied; and

e. Employees must be advised to have food, water, prescription medicines, etc., within their respective work stations.

Management failed to follow these procedures after receiving the hurricane warning for Hurricane Bob. In fact, they didn’t follow a single one. Item a. simply did not occur. Items b. and c. were impossible, thanks to management’s disregard of safety when it failed to repair Lab 257’s underground power cable. If procedure d. had been followed, sewage would not have spilled onto the floor and contaminated the building and the men of B Crew. Finally, the lack of proper provisions mandated by item e. forced Phillip Piegari to leave containment to obtain provisions for the crew. “I don’t think they expected the hurricane to be of that magnitude, that it could do such damage. But they knew it was coming and didn’t prepare for it,” one crew member later reasoned.

The government broke Dr. Jerry Callis’s cardinal rule. “Each person,” Dr. Callis wrote in the introduction to his three-inch-thick island safety manual circulated to all new employees, “has a moral and legal responsibility for assuring that maximum biological safety precautions will be taken in all operations.” A reckless disregard of Callis’s edict and the standard emergency safety procedures caused Lab 257 to come apart at the seams during Hurricane Bob. Those responsible for Plum Island safety, notably island Director Dr. Roger Breeze, compromised the safety of both the island’s employees and the public at large. It is only by a stroke of good fortune that contamination didn’t noticeably spread to Long Island, Connecticut, and beyond.

* * *

The government refused to admit anything went wrong in Lab 257. Dr. Plowman’s letter of commendation didn’t acknowledge that a power outage actually occurred. Management treated B Crew’s thirty-two-hour dance with a hurricane like a typical day on Plum Island. Over time, the men found other employment or retired. A few continued to work on Plum Island for the private contractor, at a fraction of their previous wages, without any meaningful retirement benefits.

Soon after the hurricane, Phillip Piegari developed flulike symptoms — constant nausea, severe headaches, and hot-and-cold flashes. His family physician requested the blood sample that Plum Island officials took when he began employment. The government refused to release it. After a News-day article uncovered the government’s stonewalling, officials gave in and released a portion of the blood sample. After batteries of tests, neither his doctor nor doctors from the State University Medical Center at Stony Brook were able to diagnose Phillip’s illness. Like all standard medical centers, the facility was not equipped to check his blood against exotic “animal viruses,” many of which can infect humans. One location, however, did have the ability to test for them: the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. They refused to help. Instead, the scientists insisted that Phillip was a disgruntled laid-off worker suffering from a typical Lyme disease infection. But his medical doctors flatly refused to diagnose Phillip’s condition as Lyme disease. The symptoms went undiagnosed and unabated for six years before they gradually subsided, though he continues to suffer occasional mysterious relapses where he contracts viral-like symptoms. Over a decade later, Phillip Piegari tries to lead a generally healthy, normal life. Nonetheless, he is certain that he was infected with an unknown virus from his contact with contaminated sewage and poisoned air in Lab 257 on that fateful night. And Plum Island’s determination to prevent an accurate diagnosis only furthers that likelihood.

* * *

There is reason to believe Phillip wasn’t the only one who contracted something that night.

Two years after he helped rescue Lab 257 from certain meltdown, Stanley “Shine” Mickaliger came down with relentless arthritic conditions. First he had a difficult time bending his elbow. Then his legs hurt him when he walked. And then he couldn’t walk at all. “For eighteen months, I was deadly sick — my wife would have to fit me into the car to go see the local doctor.” Shine’s country physician put him on a heavy regimen of cortisone steroid shots to bring down inflammation, which eased some of the pain, but replaced it with a dogged malaise and awful bruises from bumping into things around the house. Plum Island viewed Shine’s illness the same way they did Phillip’s and those of others — with denial and with contempt. Unlike Phillip, Shine couldn’t offer his doctors a baseline blood sample, since Plum Island never took one from him during his twenty-year career. When he asked a Plum Island safety officer for help in finding out the cause of his condition, the official told him there was no money in the budget to do it, and that they didn’t have the dime for it. “It’s hard to prove,” says Shine, “and I wasn’t bled by Plum Island, so who knows?” He couldn’t point to the Lab 257 meltdown as the definitive cause, however, because that fateful weekend wasn’t the first time he was exposed to contagion.

On Wednesday morning, March 2, 1983, a sewer line leaking from Animal Room 264, which had cattle infected with the Isfahan strain of vesicular stomatitis, spilled into the equipment room. Sludge splashed on Shine and two other building engineers taking their coffee break. Shine and another worker immediately placed plastic tape over the gushing pipe and flooded the floor area with hydrochloric acid.

Ten minutes after the crew’s panicked phone call, safety officers Drs. Walker and Richmond barged into the equipment room and ordered the area locked down and decontaminated. The crew locked the corridor door and sealed it with duct tape on both sides. Food was incinerated, and clothes were stripped and stuffed into the steam autoclave. The workers mopped the corridor floor with Vanodine disinfectant solution and then poured a full-strength gallon of One-Stroke into the drain in Room 264. An hour later, a safety tech, wearing heavy rubber gloves and a full-face respirator, removed the duct tape and drained the trap into a bucket. Engineers located a small hole in the pipe, and Shine patched it up with silicone. The room was deconned a third time and finally declared clean late in the afternoon. After ninety-six hours of close monitoring, miraculously neither Shine nor the ten others exposed to the contaminated waste came down with any disease. Following biosafety rules to the T, it required seven and a half hours for the engineering and safety department to control a tiny pinhole in a pipe during Jerry Callis’s administration, with far more efficiency and concern than the next regime would devote to a full biological meltdown.

After the meltdown, with no help from Plum Island and no diagnosis from his doctor, Shine turned to the one person who could help him recover — his wife, Fran. “My best doctor was my wife. She took all these books out of the local library, and threw away my meds.” Fran put him on a strict regimen of exercise, good food, and positive thinking, and he slowly regained himself. To this very day, he has no idea what his illness was. A possibility is one of one of the feared “slow” viruses, so named not for the tempo of virus growth, but for the protracted time of the disease’s course, which can be months or years.[47]

The laymen tried to figure out what they had contracted on Plum Island, and pleaded for answers from their North Fork doctors, family general practitioners better suited to bandaging knee scrapes and prescribing antibiotics for ear infections. “You are exposed to so many viruses over there,” says Shine from experience. “They say it won’t bother you, that the germs aren’t zoonotic, that they won’t transfer to you. Then you become ill, you tell your doctors you are ill, and that you work on Plum Island. And look here — they have no tests for you. Hepatitis they have a test for— but for Rift Valley fever? And USDA, their response to us always was, ‘Prove it to us. Show us what you caught here and how you caught it.’ Now how the hell I am supposed to do that?”

In a newspaper article that appeared the day after B Crew was commended for its “quick and decisive action” and then summarily fired, Plum Island officials stated there was never any danger to laboratory staff or to the public during the hurricane. Manuel Barbeito, an island safety officer, told Newsday, “There is no potential problem here…this is a safe facility,” and stated that the laboratory air filters operated during the hurricane without power and prevented diseases from escaping. When Phillip, per his physician’s instructions, asked for a list of what he was exposed to during the storm, an official handed him a letter. “It said the only things we were exposed to were paint, paint thinner, and oil — that’s all.” Apprised of the hurricane incident by Plum Island employees and worried local residents, Congressman George Hochbrueckner wrote a letter to the Department of Agriculture, demanding information on the storm’s effects on the island’s laboratories.

Though the government told the public nothing had happened, steps were being taken on Plum Island that reflected a different belief. A few days after the Newsday story, a portable generator the size of a tractor-trailer appeared alongside Lab 257. With the underground cable still shorted out, the portable generator provided the emergency power the lab had lacked for months, and covered the momentary power breaks when both the overheads and underground cable were restored. Though management claimed the biological containment system had worked properly through the hurricane, technicians replaced all of Lab 257’s outside air dampers with new units. New procedures were adopted to regularly inspect the air dampers — which, according to the government, also worked properly when Hurricane Bob hit. Henceforth, after even a minor power interruption, employees said safety officers climbed atop Lab 257 to personally inspect the roof and ascertain that outside air dampers were closing properly. And just days before they were canned, B Crew was finally trained on how to use the face respirators. “They were afraid of lawsuits,” guesses Shine, “so they did this to have it on record that we were all trained.”

Today Shine and Fran spend their days working around the house, hustling firewood, and taking long walks along the beach, pointing out sea turtles and searching for washed-up fishing lures. Hurricane Bob, searing pain, and the recurring nightmares are now in the past. In his work cabin, out back behind his modest home, Shine keeps perhaps the world’s largest collection of jigs and lures. Thousands of multicolored and feathered wooden, shiny metal, and plastic lures adorn the walls and ceilings of the dark brown cabin, warmed up in the winter by a small space heater. When he’s not fishing with his two older brothers, Charlie and Eddie, aged eighty-six and eighty-one, he’s hunched over the workbench fashioning the lures from broken ones found strewn on the beach. Shine’s at his happiest hammering, sawing, gluing, and picking away at the rigs that will trick next season’s blues and stripers into thinking they have fixed their mouths onto something delicious to eat — only to realize it’ll be Shine, not the poor fish, doing all the eating.

Phillip still lives out on the east end, working for the county now, spending his free time on his beloved boat with his black Labrador, Jezebel. A few years ago, zyta contracted breast cancer, underwent extensive chemotherapy, and thankfully pulled through. The cancer survivor now works as a translator and was recently honored at a police department banquet for lending her bilingual skills to help solve a murder case that had gone unsolved for years.

 

[47]AIDS and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD, the human variant of mad cow disease) are examples a of slow virus and a slow acting prion disease.

[47]AIDS and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD, the human variant of mad cow disease) are examples a of slow virus and a slow acting prion disease.

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