OXFORD, Conn. – Less than a day after investigators swabbed Immanuel Lutheran Church for any signs of anthrax, about 250 people gathered there Saturday to remember the 94-year-old woman who is the nation’s fifth anthrax victim.
Ottilie Wilke Lundgren was described by friends and family as a loving woman who took joy in collecting owl knickknacks – her initials were O.W.L. – and had an occasional Manhattan with dinner.
Her pastor, the Rev. Richard Miesel, recalled a phrase Lundgren used to say when she left church: “I’m an old lady, but it has its advantages. I can say anything I want.”
Miesel told mourners that while Lundgren’s death has caused fear, people should take comfort in the belief that God is a protector of his people.
“The world is often a dangerous place, and yet we have a champion who fights on our side with a weapon of the spirit,” Miesel said after the service.
Lundgren died Nov. 21 of inhalation anthrax, five days after being admitted to Griffin Hospital in Derby with pneumonia-like symptoms.
Hope for a relatively simple explanation to her infection dimmed Friday when preliminary testing of Lundgren’s home found no signs of the deadly bacteria.
“Testing was focused on the so-called mail trail,” Gov. John G. Rowland said. “Samples were taken from the house, the garbage, the mail box; all samples have tested negative for anthrax.”
Federal and state investigators also tested samples from the two post offices that deliver mail to Oxford.
All tests except one at the Seymour post office came back negative. The outstanding test needed to be reviewed, but Rowland said Friday investigators did not believe the test would come back positive.
Testing continued Saturday, with investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fanning out into this rural town of about 9,800 people.
Agents in plain clothes collected samples at the church and conducted interviews at a nearby bank.
No further results were expected before Monday, said William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state Health Department.
“As to now, nothing has been reported positive, which is good news, but from the investigation’s point of view, I guess it’s not good news because it doesn’t help point the investigation,” Gerrish said.
Lundgren seldom left her home except to visit the library, the beauty parlor, doctors’ offices and her church.
Oxford First Selectwoman Kathy Johnson said some who attended Saturday’s private service didn’t know Lundgren, but came anyway to pay their respects.
“This is probably the most peaceful hours I’ve spent in the last four days — in this church. There was a lot of love for this woman in there,” Johnson said.
A public memorial was planned for Sunday night at the same church.
Testing has shown that the strain of anthrax that killed her was similar to strains found in other recent cases. It was a “naturally occurring” strain and susceptible to antibiotics, said CDC spokeswoman Nicole Coffin.
The strain’s natural origin does not reduce the likelihood that it had been manufactured. Only 18 cases of natural inhalation anthrax have been recorded in the last 100 years, said Lisa Swenarski, a CDC spokeswoman in Atlanta, so the Oxford case is “most likely the result of a criminal act.”