New York Times
October 9, 2001


Second Anthrax Case Leads F.B.I. to Enter Inquiry


By DANA CANEDY with ALEX KUCZYNSKI

WEST PALM BEACH, FL. -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation of anthrax contamination in South Florida today after a co-worker of a man who died from the illness last week was also found to have spores of the disease.

Law enforcement officials said privately that the presence of anthrax in two co-workers, and on the computer keyboard of the man who died, was highly suspicious even though they had no evidence of criminal or terrorist activity.

In a news conference today, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has emphasized that the public should be vigilant in the face of possible terror attacks, used careful language in describing the Florida case.

"We regard this as an investigation that could become a clear criminal investigation," Mr. Ashcroft said. "We don't have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not."

"Very frankly," he continued, "we are unable to make a conclusive statement about the nature of this as either an attack or an occurrence, absent more definitive laboratory and other investigative returns."

The F.B.I. sealed off the Boca Raton offices of American Media Inc., the supermarket tabloid publisher where the two men worked, and public health officials had hundreds of people who worked or visited there line up at the Palm Beach County Health Department in nearby Delray Beach to begin precautionary antibiotics treatment and to be tested with nasal swabs for exposure to anthrax.

Last week, Health Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the first case, the death of Robert Stevens, 63, a layout editor at The Sun, was an isolated one and no cause for alarm. And Florida officials continued today to describe the findings as isolated.

"This is not a public health threat to Palm Beach County in general," Warren Newell, chairman of the Palm Beach County board of commissioners said during a news conference at the county's Emergency Operations Center.

The state's top health care official emphasized that anthrax was not a contagious disease. "But obviously for public health reasons we have decided to evaluate, to investigate and to protect those individuals working in that building," said Dr. John O. Agwunobi, Florida secretary of health.

But even the first anthrax case caused anxiety because it occurred within several miles of where some of the men involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had lived, taken flight lessons and looked into the purchase of a crop-dusting plane, an indication to some that they were considering an act of bioterrorism.

Today, the F.B.I. led an aggressive investigation with health officials and representatives of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into how the men came in contact with the bacteria.

Spores had been detected in the nasal cavity of Ernesto Blanco, a 73- year-old mail supervisor at The Sun who had been hospitalized with flu- like symptoms, said Dr. Agwunobi, and traces of anthrax had also been found on a keyboard used by Mr. Stevens.

Mr. Blanco's job brought him into contact with everyone in the 67,000- square-foot building. He handled practically every piece of mail and delivered each piece to every person's desk, shuttling his cart throughout the building, several employees said. Mr. Blanco was said to be in stable condition at an undisclosed local hospital, health officials said.

David Pecker, the chief executive of American Media, said the F.B.I. told the company to tell anyone who entered the building after Aug. 1. that they must be tested. Mr. Pecker said the number of such people had reached 1,000 by yesterday afternoon.

The controlling shareholder of American Media is Evercore Capital Partners, which is headed by Roger C. Altman, who was a deputy treasury secretary in the Clinton administration.

Several employees said F.B.I. agents asked for their computer passwords and then went through their computer files and E-mail messages. They said they were also asked about temporary employees.

Some employees said F.B.I. agents were told about an intern who, when he ended his internship several weeks ago, sent an e-mail message to the staff saying he had left something for people to remember him by.

At the health department, employees were asked to fill out questionnaires about their activities during the past couple of months and their movement in the office building, specifically how often they visited the mailroom, where Mr. Blanco worked, and the library, which is nearby. The authorities were also conducting tests of the building's ventilation system.

At the health department, there was the air of a company picnic gone terribly wrong, as hundreds of American Media employees lined up in front of the building drinking Gatorade from paper cups and waiting through patches of sun and rain showers to be seen by county health officials and F.B.I. investigators.

They left with a 15-day supply of Ciproflaxocin antibiotics. Several reporters said they were told to take 1000 mg. a day, and to ask their doctor for a prescription for 45 more days after that.

The employees will also be given blood tests to test for the disease, health officials said.

Several employees brought their children to the health department they had been in the building in the early morning, before any F.B.I. agents had arrived.

Some employees said the building should have been closed as soon as Mr. Stevens was diagnosed with anthrax last week.

"It took five days to figure out that there was anthrax in the building," said an employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "if this is how quickly you diagnose something like this, we're in trouble."

The employee said he believed that heath authorities were being less than candid about the severity of the confirmed anthrax cases.

"Tommy Thompson can go on the air and say whatever he wants but we are totally unprepared," the employee said.

Valerie Virga, a senior photo editor who is married to Steve Coz, the Enquirer's editor in chief, said staff members were angry about the cases having been found in their workplace.

"People are pretty much outraged," Ms. Virga said. "People want to know how it got there. Who did this. Why it's there. They want answers. They're angry at the situation. Why here, why us."

She added that staff members were still depressed about the incidents of Sept. 11 and the death of their colleague.

"People are still depressed about Bob, who most of us have known for 20-plus years and maybe one of the nicest human beings on the planet," she said. "There is no way on earth anybody ever would have targeted him."

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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