DO Fear the Reaper
April 11, 2014 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Possibly-Apocryphal Biological/Chemical Disaster-Filter: years ago, a friend told me about a haunting, peculiar biological (or chemical) laboratory disaster. I've always wondered whether she was yanking my chain. She's passed away, but I'd like to know if anything remotely LIKE the disaster she described has ever occurred (in a nutshell: "some deadly skin/respiratory agent kills everyone working in a lab facility instantly"). Literally-gory details within.

Okay, here's the friend's story. I'd like to know if anything remotely like this HAS occurred (and eventually been made public). For maximum effect, imagine her taking drags off of a Parliament and sucking down a can of Gennesee Light while recounting it in a gravelly voice: "An old college friend of mine is a photographer, and she said that the weirdest job she ever had was visiting this research lab that had experienced some kind of disaster that was immediately fatal to everyone IN the lab but left the place entirely intact. The couldn't move the bodies due to contamination risks, but periodically, she'd have to put on extreme hazmat gear, go in, and photograph all of the rooms for some reason."

It sounds faintly ridiculous (and also faintly like the beginning of "The Stand")... but the friend in question wasn't a pathological liar, so... is this tale even remotely possible?
posted by julthumbscrew to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
You might try reading The Hot Zone and see if that fits with your story. I don't recall a scene exactly like you describe but I read it many years ago. I do recall a primate facility where they had to quarantine it, bleach everything, deal with it in hazmat suits.
posted by Michele in California at 11:40 AM on April 11, 2014

This happened at least once with the Demon Core. Lot's of horrifying details in appropriately clinical language (including the awesomely understated phrase "unfavorable geometry") can be found in the Review of Criticality Accidents.
posted by The Bellman at 11:41 AM on April 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Could it have been a VX nerve gas plant?
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:44 AM on April 11, 2014

I will add that The Hot Zone is not fiction and is about biological contamination, not chemical or radiation. It is, in part, about deadly diseases getting into the U.S. (and the efforts to then contain them so more people would not die). That's why I thought of it.
posted by Michele in California at 11:51 AM on April 11, 2014

MeFi on criticality accidents here. There have been nuclear accidents (including SL-1 here in the US) where recovery of the bodies was hindered by radiation, so elements of your friend's story have the ring of truth, as in all good urban legends.
posted by The Bellman at 11:51 AM on April 11, 2014

I seem to recall something similar to this story from Ken Alibek's Biohazard, but I can't say that with 100% certainty. Alibek was the lead scientist who ran the former USSR's biological weapons program.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:36 PM on April 11, 2014

A researcher using dimethylmercury died after getting a drop or two on her latex glove. But that was only a single person and her death wasn't instantaneous.
posted by tommasz at 12:36 PM on April 11, 2014

Something like that is far more likely to be the result of chemical poisoning than of biological infection. There are definitely chemical agents which are sufficiently lethal to cause exactly the result you describe (everyone dead in seconds). Nerve gas could do it, but probably wouldn't be found in a typical chemical lab.

But it doesn't take anything so exotic. There are a lot of chemicals which do get used in a standard lab which can be fatal on extremely small exposure. One example is Arsine. Another example is Phosgene. And the death process can be very fast with chemical agents.

I've never heard of a biological agent that could kill in seconds. Biological processes aren't that quick -- you're talking at least hours, probably more like a couple of days for the fastest ones (like hemorrhagic fevers).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:44 PM on April 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you want to get a feel for just how toxic (and/or explosive and/or corrosive) some chemicals can be, try reading this series of blog posts: "Things I Won't Work With" by industrial chemist Derek Lowe.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:02 PM on April 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

The thing that doesn't work for me is the inability to clean-up a building. I can't see how that would work for any chemical or biological agent.

Chemical residues are rarely (never?) so persistent or immune to remediation that facilities have to be abandoned though. Even nerve gases or heavy metal contamination (say stibine or arsene) can be cleaned-up. Biologicals are easier; there are things like bleach fogs which can kill about any biological material, even the toughest spore. There are protective suits which can be worn for any chemical and/or biological risk factors, at least for short spans.

That's less true for radiation hazards, however.
posted by bonehead at 1:04 PM on April 11, 2014

Radiation is not a good explanation for this, either. It's possible to receive a lethal dose of radiation in just a second or two, but it still takes hours or days to die from it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:05 PM on April 11, 2014

The whole photography protocol thing doesn't really make sense to me either. If you could send in a mook in a suit with a camera, why not one with a decon foam spray wand?
posted by bonehead at 1:09 PM on April 11, 2014

There is Vozrozhdeniya Island, site of a Soviet germ warfare lab; the island as a whole is so contaminated it has been abandoned. This isn't exactly your scenario, but there are related links at the bottom of that wikipedia page and generally searching for info on this facility might be one lead to follow.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 PM on April 11, 2014

Could it be a confused retelling of Karen Parker's death as the last victim of smallpox at the University of Birmingham where she worked in a dark room above the smallpox lab? You have the lethal exposure and photography. The head of the lab then committed suicide.
posted by srboisvert at 2:42 PM on April 11, 2014

More close-but-not-perfect fits from Wikipedia:

Anthrax (Main article: Sverdlovsk anthrax leak)

Spores of weaponized anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility near the city of Sverdlovsk in 1979. The death toll was at least 105, but no one knows the exact number, because all hospital records and other evidence were destroyed by the KGB, according to former Biopreparat deputy director Kenneth Alibek.[3]

Marburg virus

The Soviet Union reportedly had a large biological weapons program enhancing the usefulness of the Marburg virus. The development was conducted in Vector Institute under the leadership of Dr. Ustinov who accidentally died from the virus. The samples of Marburg taken from Ustinov's organs were more powerful than the original strain. The new strain, called "Variant U", had been successfully weaponized and approved by the Soviet Ministry of Defense in 1990.[3]
posted by anonymisc at 2:45 PM on April 11, 2014

SL-1? (pinned to the ceiling)
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:12 PM on April 11, 2014

Yeah, I'm going with biological as well, but the facts of e.g. the Reston outbreak (I think this is in the opening of 'The Hot Zone') or Ft. Detrick some years later might explain the caution such as wearing a "space suit", but there wouldn't have been any (human) remains.

In any event, I'm having a hard time coming up with any scenario where bodies would be left lying around, especially if it were possible to have a photographer go in. I mean, maybe at Chernobyl. But often such human remains would have scientific value in addition to the wish to deliver them to relatives.
posted by dhartung at 4:00 PM on April 11, 2014

If it happened, it would almost have to have been a chemical toxin. Biological and radiation hazards don't kill fast enough; people would have left the room, there would've been some emergency response activity at the very least, some attempt to give aid.

If I'm understanding the story right the lab was just wiped out and people dropped dead pretty much wherever they were standing at the time, which to me sounds like it would have to have been from some kind of toxic gas leak. There are definitely chemical hazards that can do that.

That said, I feel like this story is probably apocryphal, perhaps a distortion of a real event that has morphed over a few tellings into something like an urban legend. Having a whole lab get wiped out would be a big deal (everyone in the sciences knows about the dimethylmercury incident, and Dr. Wetterhan was just one researcher) but I can't find anything thag sounds like what you're talking about. The most likely scenario I feel like would involve clandestine Soviet military research (they were pretty bad about safety precautions) but your friend's friend wouldn't have been photographing that.
posted by Scientist at 5:25 PM on April 11, 2014

I can't think of anything that fits all the parameters. Drops dead instantly has to be chemical, by my understanding. As has been said above, the fastest biological agents take hours to kill, radiation takes even longer (the people in the Chernobyl walked out of there, for example.)

The problem with this, is I don't see any reason you'd have to leave the bodies there; A sealed coffin is used in a lot of accidents like this, occasionally with burial in a special place so it isn't accidentally dug up. I could see a photographer being brought in to document everything right away, to try and figure out what went wrong, but not leaving the bodies in place.

There have been a couple known releases of chemical weapons, but to my knowledge they've all been either in Nazi Germany or the USSR.
posted by Canageek at 11:16 AM on April 12, 2014

Oh, there was also a pretty good book on chemical warfare called A Higher Form of Killing. There were a lot of problems with it after it left WWII though, in that it was very political and rather alarmist about things with not a lot of science to back them up. It also somewhat nonsensically doesn't differentiate between biological poisons (i.e. something I'd slip into a needle and stab someone with to kill them) and mass or self-propagating attacks.

Also the newer edition of it concluded that Iraq did have WMDs, so make of that what you want.
posted by Canageek at 11:19 AM on April 12, 2014

Response by poster: Oh my gosh, it's a scary and fascinating world out there. I want to mark ALL of these best answer! I think my conclusion is this: 1. My friend was full of it, buuuuuut, 2. Certain aspects of her story HAVE occurred at various times (and may have grown conflated in her mind), and, 3. These various terrifying/fascinating real-life stories will provide SO much good reading that I don't especially care that it's unlikely the event in her original story ever occurred.
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:29 PM on April 13, 2014

Keep in mind this was a repeated story about "an old friend." Your friend was not a firsthand witness/participant. And presumably you did not record it and are telling it years later from memory. So I think it is highly likely that the original story told to your friend was true but got smudged a bit in the retelling, kind of like The Telephone Game.
posted by Michele in California at 1:38 PM on April 13, 2014

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