The people in the small town of New Sweden in northern Maine who survived drinking arsenic-laced coffee at their community church don’t want to talk about the events of April 27, 2003.
But the doctor who headed up the response that saved 15 of the 16 people sickened said the planning that came afterward helped Maine prepare for the 2009 swine flu outbreak and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
Fatalities could have been much higher 20 years ago Thursday if the terrorist attacks and anthrax poisonings in 2001 had not brought the arsenic antidote to Maine in time to save lives, according Dr. Dora Anne Mills, who was head of Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention at the time of the poisonings.
The U.S. geared up for a possible biological attack targeting urban areas after 9/11, according to Mills.
“What New Sweden taught us is that terrorism is not only international, it was and is increasingly domestic and domestic threats can be in rural communities,” she said.
Mills, whose older sister is Gov. Janet Mills, now works for MaineHealth in Portland as senior vice president for community health.
One week after Easter two decades ago, 16 worshippers between the ages of 31 and 80 at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church were sickened after drinking coffee laced with arsenic. Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died the next morning. Since then, at least six survivors have died of various causes.
Once officials announced the poisonings were caused by arsenic deliberately placed in the coffee urn, reporters from throughout Maine, across the country and in Canada descended on the tiny Aroostook County community, which boasts just 557 residents, according to 2020 census data.
Five days later, church member Daniel “Danny” Bondeson, 53, of Woodland shot himself in the chest and left a note claiming responsibility. Months of investigation followed. In 2006 the Maine attorney general’s office announced that the case was closed and officials were convinced Bondeson had acted alone.
A Caribou lawyer who Bondeson spoke with before his death said in 2006 that the Woodland man did not realize that the liquid he poured into the coffee while others worshiped was arsenic.
“He said he did it and that he did it to make people sick,” Peter S. Kelley said after a judge lifted the attorney-client privilege bond that extends past a client’s death.
Arsenic can cause a variety of symptoms, some of them long term, including numbness in the hands and feet, partial paralysis and blindness. It also has been linked to various types of cancer.
Four of the New Sweden victims were maintained on life support for several days at Eastern Maine Medical Center after the poisoning. Others were hospitalized in Caribou. The fact that just one person died was due to the timely arrival of the antidote in Maine.
Just weeks before the incident, the state had ordered chemical antidote stockpiles at Mills’ insistence.
Prior to the poisonings, states couldn’t use federal bioterrorism funds distributed in the wake of the terrorist attacks to create local stockpiles, she said in 2014. Instead, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to set up regional caches of emergency supplies that could be delivered anywhere in the country within 24 hours, she said.
“If you need an antidote, you need it a few minutes ago,” Mills said then.
Maine tracked down another funding source and collected medical disaster supplies. The lifesaving antidotes had just arrived in Portland on April 27, 2003, she said. Maine state police troopers delivered them to the Bangor and Caribou hospitals, lights and sirens blazing, as their cruisers rushed north.
Later, federal authorities freed up the bioterrorism funds and encouraged other states to create their own stockpiles under pressure from Mills and the review of Maine’s response to the poisonings.
Less than a decade after the poisonings, Maine had pharmaceuticals stashed at hospitals throughout the state, from antimicrobials to radiation exposure drugs, ready for mobilization where needed.
The network built among hospitals and health care providers during the days following the poisonings proved to be a solid foundation that was essential in reacting to the swine flu outbreak and the pandemic, especially in rolling out vaccines to quell the spread of the viruses, Mills said.
“Partnerships were formed among hospitals, the CDC, the poisoning center and others during the New Sweden poisonings that allowed for statewide planning that paid off in our responses to the H1N1 [swine flu] outbreak and the pandemic and vaccine distribution,” she said.
While Mills and others predicted that the New Sweden poisonings would provide an opportunity for doctors and researchers to study the long-term impact of arsenic on the human body, no medical research study appears to have been done.
The Maine CDC no longer is keeping track of the survivors’ health as it did in the early years following the incident.
Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church continues to hold Sunday services led by a retired pastor.