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In the Danger Zone : Richard Preston Was Born to Tell the True Story of a Deadly Virus Outbreak

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Preston has a knack for getting into wherever he wants and coaxing information from whomever he wants.

“I don’t believe that I’m a gifted writer, but I believe I am a gifted listener,” says the 40-year-old author, who is in fact both. “When I talk to someone, I just keep hearing their sentences over and over in my head even when I’m asleep. And when you get fascinated by something, people open up.”

His just-published bestseller, “The Hot Zone” (Random House), is a mesmerizing real-life variation on “Andromeda Strain” about a near-catastrophic outbreak of a tropical virus called Ebola Reston in suburban Virginia in 1989. To bring the story to life, Preston needed to persuade the Army--not exactly dying to rehash biological threats--to cooperate extensively.

For instance, Preston wanted to experience a “Level 4" virus hot room. Level 4 viruses such as Ebola Reston are by definition lethal, highly contagious, have no cure and no vaccine. (By comparison, anthrax is a Level 2 virus; HIV, a Level 3.)

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Because a terrorist who obtained a test tube of Level 4 virus could hold a city hostage, there are only two containment labs that work with them--both highly secure and open only to a handful of specially trained epidemiologists clad in spacesuits.

But in 1993, when Preston asked USAMRIID (pronounced “You Sam Rid”), the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., to let him take a peek at theirs, they obliged.

“Actually they were reluctant to let me in less for security reasons than because people tend to panic in there,” Preston says. “An earlier visitor suffered an attack of claustrophobia and ripped his helmet off and they had to give him an emergency decon (decontamination) shower.”

Born in Cambridge, Mass., to a lawyer father and a mother who taught art history, Preston graduated in 1977 from Pomona College, which he loved, majoring in English.

Stuck on what to do next, he went east to Princeton University as a graduate student. There he met his wife, Michelle, and settled down. Today they have three children, ages 6 months to 5 years.

Since then, all Preston has done for a living is write, beginning in Princeton’s development office, ignominiously “ghost-writing letters to corporations and wealthy people begging for money,” a task one can imagine him excelling at.

“What I learned about people I learned from my mother. She was like the unofficial caseworker of Wellesley, Mass., where we lived. She would get deeply involved in people’s lives and become deeply sympathetic to them. I learned that skill of being able to lose oneself, wash away oneself, enter into the mind of someone else. You project into their mind and see the world as they see it.”

Moving on to more substantial game, Preston brought his ingenuous smile, his permanent look of sympathy crossbred with enthusiasm, and his perpetually ready memo pads to astronomers working on Caltech’s Hale telescope in “First Light” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987) and then to metalworkers looking for a new way to pour sheet steel in “American Steel” in 1991.

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“First Light” earned him $45,000. “American Steel,” published by a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. then in the process of dissolving, made more than $100,000, but there were still times, he says, when he didn’t have mortgage money.

“The advance comes in and for a while you’re living pretty well,” he says. “And then the money runs out.”

So nothing prepared him for the enthusiasm that would race through the literary world and Hollywood beginning in the fall of 1992, when the New Yorker published the article that would grow into “The Hot Zone.”

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Now he sits in the house that “The Hot Zone” built--six bedrooms in suburban Princeton, N.J. The living room is large with a stone fireplace and extensive collections of John McPhee and A.J. Liebling, both nonfiction writers whom, along with Henry Thoreau, Preston particularly admires.

Dressed in a gray shirt, blue jeans, brown loafers and white socks a la perennial grad student, hair tousled and prematurely gray, the boyish Preston wolfs down a piece of pizza, drinks a glass of wine and seems unfazed by the piece of animal spleen loaded with deadly Ebola virus particles--sterilized and shielded by acrylic plastic to be sure--that sits nearby as a souvenir from an Army friend.

On his oak mantelpiece are a drinking bowl from Lake Turkana and an East African gourd, both of which he bought in Nairobi where he went in the fall of 1993 to visit Kitum Cave, the suspected host site for the Marburg virus, which is closely related to Ebola. He dressed in a portable spacesuit, entered the caves and found . . . nothing.

“I admit the book would have had a better ending if I’d blown up with the virus,” he says. Instead, “my heart just pounded.”

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The long route that led Preston, dressed like the Michelin man, to an obscure Kenyan cave likely carved by the tusks of salt-seeking elephants has a complex beginning.

Like the rest of the world, Preston had paid scant attention to a syndicated 1989 article about an outbreak of a rare virus among a group of medical research monkeys in Virginia.

Fearing that the virus might get out into the suburban population, USAMRIID had quietly seized the building and decontaminated it, killing about 500 monkeys in the process, a gruesome and elaborate episode that Preston handles in the book without blinking.

“I’m not callous to suffering,” he says, “but I’m a journalist and I have to describe accurately.”

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Ebola Reston, as the virus was later named, turned out to be a Level 4 virus, a relative of Ebola Zaire, one of the most virulent viruses ever to strike humanity. But thanks to some skillful Army subterfuge and fourth-estate laziness, no one got the connection between an animal-euthanizing operation in a suburban office park and the reality that for those few weeks, several million lives around Washington, D.C., were at risk.

“The truth is by the time I called, basically the Army had started to forget Reston,” Preston says. “They had not gotten a lot of attention for what they had done, and they were extremely happy that they had gone in there and done it without a lot of people getting killed and the Army getting blamed for some sort of bio-disaster.”

Preston had forgotten the clipping, too, but the subject preoccupied him more generally. He believed it was just a matter of time before a virus emerged from the fast-diminishing rain forest and, in the language of epidemiology, “burned” its way through the overpopulated planet.

“I was drawn . . . by a general sense of talking around in the scientific community that the AIDS virus is the tip of the iceberg,” he says. That was when expert virologists reminded him of the Reston outbreak and he picked up the phone and called USAMRIID.

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“They didn’t know who I was or what I wanted,” he says. “My first phone call in 1992 caused a lot of nervousness. There’s a natural gut level mistrust of journalists in the Army. They want to know what your agenda is.”

He was granted a single interview with the husband and wife who led the decontamination mission, Col. Jerry and Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax, the chief veterinarian and pathologist of USAMRIID respectively, who would be major figures in the book. They provided him with the story and, more importantly, with characters.

“I decided instantly after doing the interview with Jerry, Nancy and also Peter Jahrling (a USAMRIID civilian who has the name of his favorite deadly virus on his license plate), I wanted to write the story. I don’t think they had an awareness of just how interesting the Reston crisis and their work was. The basic outlines of the book all came out in that interview, their autobiographies and their sense of their interior life.”

Preston told the New Yorker magazine, with which he had an informal, longstanding relationship, of his project and got his expenses covered. It was the story he was born to write.

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“What I’m passionately interested in is not science but American lives,” he explains, “and I especially love to write about people whose lives appear normal but are actually deeply atypical, like the Jaaxes.

“I was struck by how the officers involved in this mission went home to perfectly normal homes. And I think it was fascinating that USAMRIID soldiers (whose basic job is to look after livestock being held for vaccine research) went into a place the Army Rangers would have been scared to go into.

“I also love to explore the zone of contact between nature and human beings. All my books are about that in one way or another.”

A gift for putting science into layman’s prose and a sharp eye for detail stood Preston in good stead working on his magazine article, one of the most admired pieces of its year and a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

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Preston’s agent soon sold “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” with its title shortened by two words and its length expanded by a factor of six, to Random House for about $350,000. In publishing, you takes your money and you makes your tour, but Preston, slated for a 15-city jag, offered to cancel if his wife found being at home alone with their three small children too onerous. As spouses generally do in such moments, she declined.

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And then Hollywood came calling. In a widely reported story, “Crisis in the Hot Zone” engendered a nasty footrace between 20th Century Fox, which optioned it for director Ridley Scott and actors Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, and a competing Warner Bros. project from an original script set to star Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo.

Tension over whom the script should feature derailed Fox’s project, leaving Preston with the $100,000 option money and considerable bitterness. He calls the Warner Bros. picture “a high-budget rip-off,” adding: “My feelings are that my lawyers are going to watch very carefully and see what’s going to happen.”

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But even the knowledge that someone is likely to make tens of millions of dollars at his expense doesn’t much tamp his enthusiasm. He has had a career year, giving him a margin of economic safety for the first time, and more time for backpacking and canoeing.

Preston came home from his fast ride through “The Hot Zone” with one other rather unwelcome guest as well: a touch of hypochondria.

“I find myself feeling a little apprehensive now when in an enclosed space with a lot of strange people,” he says. “I don’t much like traveling on the subway anymore.”

Given the likely success of the book, it’s unlikely he’ll have to.

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