Volume 75, Number 46 | April 5 - 11 2006

Villager photo by Patrick Andrade

After surviving anthrax, hugs never felt better to Vado Diomande. Above, he got one at a press conference last Wednesday on the Upper East Side.

Drummer beats anthrax, but cleanup has him reeling

By Bonnie Rosenstock

Last Wednesday evening — a week after being released from a Pennsylvania hospital where he had been recovering for more than a month after collapsing from anthrax while on tour — Greenwich Village African dancer and drum maker Vado Diomande held a press conference at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Lexington Ave. and 80th St.

Looking gaunt and thin from his life-threatening ordeal, he spoke very briefly but warmly to a handful of reporters and well-wishers. In halting, heavily accented English, the smiling Diomande, 44, thanked everybody who helped him and said he was happy to be alive.

Diomande is the first person in America in more than 30 years to have contracted natural anthrax. Only 18 cases were reported in the country during the 20th century. Inhalation anthrax is not contagious from human to human.

According to a six-page handout that was distributed, Diomande purchased four goatskin hides for djembe drum making when he was visiting his home village in the Ivory Coast after 13 years of living abroad. The goatskins were transported in the cargo of the plane in a roll, wrapped in a plastic bag. Diomande carried them through U.S. customs, where they were inspected by officials and released back to him. In addition, Diomande acquired cowhides from a local New York supplier a few days prior to becoming ill. He and a co-worker recall that one of these hides was full of dander and dust, which rose in the air when he tossed it on the floor of his sixth-floor workspace on Prince St. in Brooklyn.

Lisa Diomande, who manages her husband’s Kotchegna Dance Company, said she was thrilled to be back home and thanked New Yorkers and the West African community for their support and sympathy.

“This experience has been one of shocking accidental illness,” she said. “We all want to work together to make sure this freak accident will never happen again. It’s been a pioneering experience.” She emphasized that being near Diomande doesn’t make anyone sick, that “you can hug him, kiss him, take class with him, buy his drums, you can trust his craftsmanship. He is not a contagion. He received an infection in his lungs from breathing in a certain amount of spores of a certain size. We’re going to find out exactly what the nature of naturally occurring bacillus anthracis infection is,” she promised.

She also expressed concern about how their artistic lives are going to resume and how to rebuild the image of West African drums and drum making.

“It’s a tainted image. Many people are paying the price for this,” she declared.

Another handout, a two-page paper headed “Questions and Points to Consider,” stated that the public is frightened to interact with Diomande and others who make and perform with drums made of animal hides, which has resulted in suspicion and cancelled bookings.

The Diomandes are facing a future filled with many uncertainties.

Diomande cannot return to their fifth-floor walk-up at 31 Downing St. in Greenwich Village because his lungs are not strong enough to manage all the stairs, and the apartment was decontaminated with bleach, which is not good for his still-recovering lungs to breathe.

“My place is rent stabilized, so I don’t pay very much,” noted Lisa Diomande. “Moving out of the Village is going to be hard enough because we can’t afford the rent on a new place there.”

In addition, they have no furniture. All porous possessions were incinerated, including curtains, rugs, the bed and all their clothing. Despite requests from the Diomandes, a complete inventory of the items removed from the apartment and 2 Prince St. has not been provided by the Environmental Protection Agency or the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the two agencies responsible for overseeing the cleaning effort.

Both documents outlined the inconsistencies in decontamination procedures. For example, neither Diomande’s clothing nor boots he was wearing at the time of admission to the hospital were removed, tested or destroyed. Lisa Diomande chose to throw the boots out after a representative from D.O.H.M.H. said it was up to her.

Diomande’s brother- and sister-in-law were allowed to enter the apartment and take clothing to him and his wife. But all other clothing at the apartment was incinerated. At both the apartment and workspace some items were cleaned while others of similar material and composition were removed and destroyed. At the workspace irreplaceable costumes were fumigated, not washed, therefore rendering them unusable.

Among the many questions the Diomandes want answers to include: What criteria were used to determine what needed to be incinerated and what could have been successfully cleaned? Was the thoroughness of the decontamination effort warranted by the risk? What were the actual levels of contamination found in the apartment and the workspace?

For now the Diomandes are staying with Lisa’s brother Alex Harmon and his wife, Janine Coover, in Jersey City. Diomande will be in occupational, physical and respiratory therapy and will be training himself in dance and drum activity as he gets stronger.

“So far the doctors like what they see because he’s exceeding all expectations even though they have very little to go by with this disease,” Harmon told The Villager.

When Justin Kafando, a member of Diomande’s dance company and co-owner of Megastar Studios, housed on the third floor of the 2 Prince St. location, took the microphone after Diomande spoke, he could not contain his anguish. He said his life has been destroyed because of the cleanup.

“You have nothing to do with this,” he assured Diomande, adding, “Everything I’ve worked for, all my dreams have turned into a nightmare.”

Then he broke down in tears and could not continue speaking, though he answered questions later on.

Kafando’s recording studio was totally destroyed. Among items removed — worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — were speakers, microphones, all CD’s, hard drives, a G5 tower, the air conditioning unit, all software in boxes and personal documents from a cabinet. Even petty cash totaling a couple of hundred dollars was missing. Diomande told the press that 600 sealed boxes of CDs of his music were also taken away. Tradewinds, an independent contractor, was hired for the 2 Prince St. decontamination. The E.P.A. provided technical consultation, and D.O.H.M.H. had final say in decisions. The building owner had to pay for the cleanup, said to cost between $500,000 and $2 million.

Kafando was told that one speaker was contaminated; yet every expensive speaker is gone. Meanwhile, one worth about $25 wasn’t removed. Kafando related that the boom box that was in the rehearsal room was moved into the control room and set up with the cheap speaker that didn’t belong to it, so the workers could listen to music while they were decontaminating. The big, costly keyboard workstation is missing, yet the cheap one, which was back to back with it, wasn’t touched.

“Why haven’t we been given an inventory by Tradewinds, the E.P.A. or the D.O.H.M.H. of what was removed?” asked Persephone DaCosta, co-owner of Megastar Studios. “We wrote letters and called. We’re a small business. We didn’t have insurance. We could barely make the rent.”

Also present at the press conference was Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union and candidate for public advocate last year.

“We are committed to working with the people who are here today to find out why the government agencies moved in the way they did,” Siegel said. “Perhaps what happened was overkill, an overreaction, a human response to government action. Having Vado’s name become public is a violation of his privacy rights. But most important are the policy and legal questions that have come out of the situation. Perhaps a new protocol needs to be followed. Once we get all the facts, we will decide what their legal options are.”

Vado Diomande’s Kotchegna Dance Company will host a benefit for Diomande and the 2 Prince St. tenants on May 5 at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Lexington Ave. and 80th St.

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