- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

The FBI yesterday opened a vigorous investigation into the circumstances of the death of one man from anthrax and the revelation that a second had been exposed to the spores that cause the disease.

The second man, a mailroom worker, has not been diagnosed as having pulmonary anthrax, which is not spread by person-to-person contact.

"Two swallows do not make spring," said Dr. Richard Levinson, deputy director of the American Public Health Association.

He and health officials in Florida are reluctant to regard the two cases as anything but coincidences. Dr. Levinson speculates that the patient may have been given antibiotics early enough in the course of the disease's incubation to avert any threat to his life from anthrax.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the FBI, working with local police and health authorities, has sealed the office building in Boca Raton, Fla., where the two men worked. Agents are trying to determine how the men came to be exposed to the anthrax bacteria.

"We take this very seriously," Mr. Ashcroft said at a press conference at the Justice Department, adding that "we don't have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not."

"We regard this as an investigation which could become a clear criminal investigation, and we are pursuing this with all the dispatch and care that's appropriate."

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson declared last week that the first illness was "an isolated case there is no evidence of terrorism."

Federal investigators handling the cases have eliminated the obvious environmental sources of anthrax, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, said CDC officials told him that "human intervention" was the likely cause of contamination.

The cases raised concerns because anthrax has been used in germ warfare, and pulmonary anthrax, which comes from inhaling the bacteria, rarely occurs naturally. There were just 18 cases in the 20th century.

The first anthrax victim was Bob Stevens, 63, of Lantana, Fla. Mr. Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun, a supermarket tabloid, was reported Thursday to have been infected. On Friday he died of pulmonary anthrax.

Then late Sunday night a second employee of the Sun, a 73-year-old mailroom worker who already had been hospitalized with pneumonia, was tested for the presence of anthrax. A swab sample taken from his nostrils contained the bacteria. Co-workers identified him to reporters as Ernesto Blanco.

He was in stable condition late yesterday afternoon, health officials said, and is expected to recover from his pneumonia case.

All people who work in the building, which houses the Sun, National Enquirer, Globe and other publications of American Media Inc., are being tested for exposure to the disease. The building has been shut down for 60 days, and reporters and staff are being relocated to the Los Angeles and New York bureaus to continue publication.

"Clearly, they were searching to see if something was planted. It's crazy, it's surreal," one employee of American Media told The Washington Times. The employee, who asked not to be named, was tested yesterday for the virus and said it will be days before the test results will be known.

Many who have been in the building are being given prophylactic doses of antibiotics "to allay fears," said Dr. John Agwunobi, Florida's secretary of health.

But not everyone thinks the two cases are coincidental.

Randy Larsen, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who is now a terrorism specialist with the nonprofit ANSER Institute for Homeland Security a research center says the small number of cases may still indicate a terrorist attack that did not proceed according to plan.

"It is hard to imagine that this is a naturally occurring event. And if it is not, it demonstrates that the terrorists have a bioweapons capability. We're suspicious. We think that what this demonstrates is that it is difficult to deliver this stuff [anthrax bacteria]," meaning that the incident may have been intended as a large attack that failed.

Col. Larsen nonetheless added, "Nothing's confirmed. And there is no reason to panic."

Among the circumstances giving investigators pause:

• Even one case of inhaled anthrax is unusual. Most reported anthrax cases have occurred among agricultural workers who contract the disease by touching or eating infected animals or by processing infected animals' hides or wool. On such occasions, the disease takes the form of skin eruptions and can be successfully treated if caught in time.

• The area in which the American Media headquarters is located was frequented by several of the terrorists implicated in the attacks.

Several of the hijackers sought information about the techniques of crop dusting at a crop-dusting base within 40 miles of the Stevens home and not far from the American Media facility. Among other methods of delivery, anthrax spores can be released from sprayers such as those on crop-duster aircraft.

• Mr. Stevens, who died from the disease, lived about a mile from an airstrip where Mohamed Atta rented planes. Atta has been identified as one of the hijackers and the likely ringleader.

• Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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