Town faces a new re­al­ity: 2nd nerve agent poi­son­ing

The Mercury News Weekend - - OTHER VIEWS - ENG­LAND

AMES­BURY, ENG­LAND » In this nor­mally pleas­ant town of 10,000 res­i­dents a stone’s throw from the mys­te­ri­ous Stone­henge mon­u­ment, the new re­al­ity is sink­ing in: Novi­chok, again.

Four months had passed since the nerve agent at­tack on a for­mer Rus­sian spy and his daugh­ter, and the col­lec­tive night­mare seemed to be fad­ing. No longer were foren­sics ex­perts in over­size haz­mat suits comb­ing the area for an in­vis­i­ble killer de­vel­oped by the Soviet Union in Cold War times.

Ea­ger tourists, drawn by an un­usu­ally long spell of glo­ri­ous sum­mer weather, were back at Stone­henge, and Eng­land’s World Cup team was surg­ing, buoy­ing spir­its. Then a lo­cal cou­ple with no ob­vi­ous con­nec­tion to Rus­sia or to es­pi­onage fell des­per­ately ill and the gov­ern­ment said Novi­chok was to blame.

Some are em­brac­ing the “keep calm and carry on” ethos that helped Eng­land through two world wars, but oth­ers were fright­ened by the seem­ingly ran­dom poi­son­ing of two in­no­cents who now lie crit­i­cally ill in a lo­cal hos­pi­tal.

“It’s shock­ing, and it’s scary,” said Elaine Read, a worker at The Kings Arms pub who used to oc­ca­sion­ally share a pint with Dawn Sturgess, one of the vic­tims. “No­body ex­pected it to hap­pen again. Ev­ery­one was say­ing it was Rus­sia, but now it’s just two ... lo­cal peo­ple. They’re just like us.”

She said it’s dif­fi­cult to feel safe af­ter what hap­pened to Sturgess, 44, and 45-year- old Char­lie Row­ley. Both be­came vi­o­lently ill within hours of each other on Satur­day. At first, au­thor­i­ties be­lieved they had taken some bad heroin or crack co­caine, but it turned out to be Novi­chok.

“You don’t know where it is, that’s the trou­ble,” Read said of the elu­sive nerve agent. “You don’t know how Dawn and Char­lie got it, how it crossed their paths.”

The bizarre case, com­bin­ing el­e­ments of amur­der mys­tery and a spy thriller, is stok­ing in­ter­na­tional ten­sions ahead of next week’s NATO sum­mit, which will deal in part with wors­en­ing re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and the West.

Bri­tain’s in­te­rior min­is­ter de­manded Thurs­day that Rus­sia ex­plain how two peo­ple were in­ad­ver­tently poi­soned with the same mil­i­tary-grade nerve agent used to at­tack ex-Rus­sian spy Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter, Yu­lia, in the nearby town of Sal­is­bury in March.

Bri­tain has ac­cused Rus­sia of be­ing be­hind the at­tack on the Skri­pals, which the Krem­lin ve­he­mently de­nies. British Home Sec­re­tary Sa­jid Javid told Par­lia­ment on Thurs­day that it is now time for Rus­sia to ex­plain “ex­actly what has gone on.”

“It is com­pletely un­ac­cept­able for our peo­ple to be ei­ther de­lib­er­ate or ac­ci­den­tal tar­gets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dump­ing grounds for poi­son,” Javid said.

In Ames­bury, res­i­dents were ad­vised to wash their clothes and take other pre­cau­tions if they were at the lo­ca­tions be­lieved to have been fre­quented by the lat­est vic­tims.

Some were stay­ing in­side to avoid any risk of con­tam­i­na­tion, but most were go­ing about their busi­ness. A few parts of town re­mained cor­doned off by po­lice, in­clud­ing the Bap­tist Church, but ac­tiv­ity in the easy­go­ing town cen­ter con­tin­ued un­abated.

“I’m not so eas­ily scared, but there has to be more to it,” said Justin Pritchard, en­joy­ing a beer with a friend.

“We don’t know what’s go­ing on. First, they said it was the Rus­sians. Now this is com­pletely sep­a­rate. Orig­i­nally, we all thought it was the Rus­sians, now it doesn’t seem quite right,” he said, not­ing that Sturgess and Row­ley have no con­nec­tion to Rus­sia.


Po­lice tape hangs sur­round­ing the Queen El­iz­a­beth Gar­dens park in Sal­is­bury, Eng­land, on Thurs­day.

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