E. coli outbreak leaves town reeling


LOCUST GROVE, Okla. — Heartache is something most folks are accustomed to in this town.

More than 30 years ago, three Girl Scouts were killed at a camp near here, brutal and still unsolved murders that stunned the country.

Last Christmas, an elderly couple — known for giving away food and clothes to the needy — were found shot to death south of town, and their killers remain at large.

Today, the blue-collar community of 1, 500 is dealing with another tragedy that may never be solved, an E. coli outbreak that killed one man and sickened more than 300 adults and children.

Chad Ingle, a 26-year-old bank teller and newlywed in the nearby town of Pryor, died. Several young children needed dialysis after the August outbreak, and some patients are still in intensive care.

The spread of the rare E. coli strain, 0111, became the largest in the nation’s history. Since laboratory tests are geared more toward detecting illness caused by E. coli 0157, it is difficult to tell how widespread 0111 infections have been nationally, medical experts say.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Dr. Mark Rowland, medical director of epidemiology for Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, which treated and tested 220 of the patients. “It seemed like this just kind of exploded.

“ It’s surprising we haven’t had more deaths. I’m going to knock on wood.” The first confirmed cases of E. coli 0111 began Aug. 15, and most of the cases occurred within that week. The last reported illness came on Sept. 6.

During the month-long scare, restaurants in town were nearly empty, and residents made runs on bottled water as rumors spread that the problem originated in the town’s water supply, proven false by state tests of samples.

At the center of the outbreak: the Country Cottage restaurant, a buffet-style eatery off the main drag that drew hundreds of customers each week and doubled as an economic engine for Locust Grove, employing about 60. It was famous for stick-to-your-ribs dishes like chicken-fried steak, catfish and homemade rolls.

The link shocked many in town who saw the Cottage as the lifeblood of this community.

In its 22-year existence, it turned into an institution: Whether you were leaving Sunday church, celebrating an anniversary or running for public office around here, chances are, you came to the Cottage.

But even though the Oklahoma Health Department connected the outbreak to the restaurant, officials still have been unable to pinpoint the origin of the E. coli, even after interviewing more than 1, 800 people.

Food samples taken from the restaurant revealed no signs of contamination, but it’s possible the tainted food had already been thrown out. This week, officials announced the outbreak had ended. The investigation continues.

Dr. Kristy Bradley, state epidemiologist, said it’s possible officials won’t ever be able to know how the bacteria got into the restaurant.

“Unless the ‘outbreak gods’ shine on us, we likely won’t be able to say with certainty,” she said.

Meanwhile, with the Cottage closed, the small town about 50 miles east of Tulsa is out its third-largest employer, behind the schools and a welding company.

About 1, 000 residents have signed a petition to keep the place open. Some close to its owners, Dale and Linda Moore, describe them as “devastated” over the victims of the outbreak.

For their part, the Moores have managed to keep a low profile in a town where everybody’s business is common knowledge, refusing numerous requests for interviews through a family representative.

“It’s going to be tough for them either way, even if... they are exonerated,” said Shawn Bates, the town’s mayor. “It’s hard for them to come back just because of the hits they’ve taken.” If the place opens soon, the wounds appear still too fresh for some.

“It’s easy for people to say, ‘let’s open up,’ but when you see your own family in [the hospital ], it really hits home,” says resident Sandra Ballou, whose 19-monthold niece became violently ill after eating at the Cottage and had to be hospitalized. “It’s almost like being between a rock and a hard place.” Ballou says she won’t ever eat again at the Cottage, and has sworn off buffets.

But the restaurant has plenty of staunch defenders, each offering up theories of how the illness broke out.

“I don’t even think it came from here,” says Steve Bell, chomping on the last bits of a breakfast sandwich at Cook’s, a downtown diner. “All those vegetables and stuff, maybe something came in.” Bell defends the Moores, and trains his anger at the news media.

“Bad news travels faster than good news,” he says. “If this had happened in Tulsa, it would’ve blown over, but it’s a small town.” “When it’s on CNN, it’s pretty deep,” restaurant worker Rose Miller chimes in, breezing past the counter to refill coffee.

At Elaine’s Beauty and Barber down the street, Nathan Knott gets a trim, and grumbles about the place still being closed.

He’s eaten there every day, six days a week — the Cottage is closed Mondays — and says he’d be first in line if it ever reopened.

“I’ve been in 43 different countries and eaten every kind of food you can imagine, but the very best food is here,” Knott says.

He rattles off some of his favorites: mashed potatoes and gravy, pork chops, blueberry hot cakes.

He thinks the contamination came by one of the restaurant’s distributors, maybe a bad frozen chicken-fried steak.

Resident Alice Saffell, who works at a flower shop on Main Street, blames a customer with dirty hands who might have tainted the buffet.

“The cowboys come in from the arena, from roping, from bull riding, they come in, drink a big glass of tea, go right to the buffet,” she says. “I’ve seen lots of mothers come in with babies, they don’t ever go wash their hands, and maybe they’ve changed diapers just before they’ve come in.” As the town notches another unsolved tragedy in its history, some residents wonder if this place can ever escape its streak of bad luck.

“So many things have happened, it just makes you wonder,” Ballou says. “I know it’s all negative, but I know that good things can come out of negative things. It’s how a person looks at it.”