On the night of April 2-3, 1979, an ominous rose-colored cloud amassed over a military compound about 850 miles east of Moscow and drifted on a southward wind into the Chkalovskiy District of Sverdlovsk. Over the next several days and weeks, people in the area began to fall ill with what was initially described as a vicious cold. The victims seemed to improve, but within days of contracting the illness, they suddenly succumbed to intense fevers, chest pains, and fierce coughing. They then died within a day or two. Estimates of the total number of deaths from the outbreak ranged from sixty-six to several hundred.
Doctors in the region were puzzled at first, but a local pathologist soon determined the cause to be anthrax, a disease caused by exposure to the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. Doctors were not permitted to write this diagnosis in official reports, however, and all evidence of the deaths-confiscated by KGB agents-was apparently destroyed in a fire at the cemetery office.