It was the unsolved mystery which, for months, only fed into the paranoia of a suddenly vulnerable America.
Just days after the horrific terrorist attack of 9-11, by early October 2001 Memphis and the rest of nation was on high alert status in what was believed, by many at the time, to be an organized chemical and biological terrorist inspired siege based on reported cases of people dying from a long forgotten killer - Anthrax.
"It's an infection primarily of herbivores," said Dr. Threkeld, an infectious disease specialist in 2001. "It can be associated with cattle, goats, sheep. When you inhale these spores, at first they don't do anything. Then they're taken up into the lungs and often end up in the lymph nodes around the lung."
In a chilling reflection of the current mysterious appearance of ricin sent to government officials, the roots of the Anthrax scare would also begin with poisonous letters in the mail. Yet, it was more than threatening correspondence. Over a month period 13 cases of fatal Anthrax poisoning in New York, Florida, Washington D.C., and Nevada created waves of panic including in Memphis.
Even before 9-11, Memphis was among 29 cities cited by the federal government as a possible terrorist target. Shelby County received $1 million in federal funding to buy equipment to fight potential chemical and biological attacks. People rushed to take vaccinations of Cipro, considered to be the leading antidote.
But, even as local leaders called for calm, the fear of infection was rampant. Where previously Memphis and Shelby County emergency crews usually averaged three hazardous calls in a day, by mid to late October, they were being called into action 30 times a day. From office high rises, to schools and homes, alleged "white powder" sightings sent people into panic mode.
However, by December 2001, it became clear there were never any confirmed cases of Anthrax in Memphis. A few sporadic arrests were made nationwide for the 13 deaths, but a "mastermind" was never captured. Just like weary emergency workers, firemen and police the city grew hostile toward those who continued to perpetrate hoaxes about something so deadly serious.
"I think there are some people who are just really naive and dumb and do it and think it's funny," said Memphis psychologist Renata Rosenthal in 2001.
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