FBI agents who raided two houses in a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia were looking for traces of anthrax, although preliminary tests proved negative for the bacteria, law enforcement authorities said yesterday.
More than two dozen FBI agents, backed by members of a hazardous-materials team in protective gear, spent seven hours Tuesday in the two Chester, Pa., houses, about 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia although agents declined to say why the houses were raided and what was found.
The houses are owned by Chester city officials Dr. Irshad Shaikh, the city’s health commissioner, and Asif Kazi, the city’s accountant, both Pakistan natives. They were questioned by agents for four hours, although neither was arrested. Masood Shaikh, Dr. Shaikh’s brother and Chester’s lead-abatement officer, also was questioned.
The agents, who stormed the houses with weapons drawn, later seized a computer from Dr. Shaikh’s city office and medicine and financial records from his home.
Law-enforcement authorities familiar with the raids said swab tests were made inside the houses for traces of anthrax, although they declined to elaborate. They said preliminary tests proved negative; additional tests are scheduled.
While FBI officials in Philadelphia and at FBI headquarters in Washington confirmed that search warrants were issued, they refused to comment on what investigators specifically were seeking or what was found, if anything. They said records in the case have been sealed.
Dr. Shaikh did not return calls yesterday for comment. He told reporters in Chester that agents asked him about anthrax and other biological agents, but declined to be specific.
He said he “fully cooperated” with the FBI. Mr. Kazi acknowledged that agents used swabs on his television and furniture, but denied any wrongdoing. Masood Shaikh said agents found nothing when they searched the house he shares with his brother.
FBI spokeswoman Linda Vizi has declined to comment on what information, if any, agents might have been seeking at the two houses. She said only that “two search warrants have been issued and two places have been searched,” adding that no one had been arrested or detained.
Miss Vizi also refused to say whether agents were looking for anthrax or other biological materials, and offered no explanation why fully protected hazardous-materials specialists had been called to the scene.
“This is a young investigation, a new investigation,” she said. “We do not know where it might take us.”
The hazardous-material squad, wearing gas masks, set up decontamination tents behind the houses. Investigators carried several green plastic trash bags out of the houses to vans and other FBI vehicles.
“People were out there talking to the agents trying to find out what was going on,” said Jodi Masusock, who works at a dentist’s office several doors away from Mr. Shaikh’s home. “The agents were telling people to go about their business, that everything was fine, which is kind of hard to do when there are people running around in those suits.”
Chester Mayor Dominic F. Pileggi said the FBI did not tell Chester city officials or police what investigators were looking for or had found, but assured him there was “no danger to the public health and that residents of the city are safe.”
Paul Thomas, a former member of the town’s Board of Health, described Mr. Shaikh as a well-respected public servant in Chester.
He said it was a “surprise” to learn that FBI agents had searched his house.
Chester is about 50 miles from where anthrax-laced letters are believed to have been mailed from a post office in Hamilton Township, N.J.
Those letters eventually went through a postal facility in Trenton, N.J., and then to NBC News in New York and the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, in Washington.
Two postal workers believed to have handled the Daschle letter later died from inhalation anthrax. Two other persons died from inhalation anthrax in New York and Florida, although the source of those infections has not been determined.