EXCLUSIVE! IT'S DOOM FOR TABLOID ARCHIVES!
21 Aug 2003
Source: New York Times, August 21, 2003
Exclusive! It's Doom for Tabloid Archives!
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
BOCA RATON, Fla., Aug. 20 — It may not be a collection worthy of the Smithsonian, but it is quintessential Americana, the trove of photos, notes and clippings from the spicy, arresting and often downright unbelievable issues of The National Enquirer, Star and other supermarket tabloids.
Now those archives, trapped here inside the posh, abandoned former headquarters of the tabloids' publisher, American Media Inc., or A.M.I., are destined for destruction. For amid the original photos of Bigfoot's wedding, the reporters' notebooks chronicling Monica Lewinsky's every move and the piles of clippings about Elizabeth Taylor's decline lurk who-knows-how-many deadly anthrax spores.
The mind leaps in considering these artifacts: five decades' worth of stunning, shocking, exclusive, tragic, spine-tingling, sidesplitting and bizarre images and documents from the tabloid world. There are five million photographs, to start. Models and movie stars cavorting half-naked in the tropics. The Bigfoot nuptials, Bat Boy lurking in caves and forests. And Elvis, of course, stone-faced and eerily out of focus in his coffin.
Then there are page upon page of clippings: breathless accounts of presidential trysts, exclusives on the trials of O. J. Simpson, John W. Hinckley Jr. and the Menendez brothers, and the occasional interview with a space alien.
"It was a phenomenal library," said Kathleen Cottay, A.M.I.'s chief librarian, standing at the single file drawer that holds the few hard-copy photos in the company's new offices, just across the highway from the old one. "Everyone used to call us for stuff."
Almost two years after a still-unidentified biological terrorist contaminated the company's headquarters with anthrax, killing a National Enquirer photo editor (case 5) and provoking international dread, a developer has bought the star-crossed building on the condition that he destroy its contents. The new owner, David Rustine, bought it in April for $40,000, seemingly a steal considering that pre-anthrax, the newly renovated building was valued at $15 million. The difficult, dangerous work of decontamination, already delayed because the preparation has been more troublesome than Mr. Rustine expected, could begin soon.
The Environmental Protection Agency found anthrax spores throughout the three-story building late in 2001, and officials of the agency say the spores can become more potent over time. So Mr. Rustine, with the help of Marcor Remediation, a Maryland cleanup company that helped rid the Hart Senate Office Building of anthrax, has a painstaking job ahead of him.
Before the cleanup crew can set foot in the building, now surrounded by wire fencing and overgrown grass, Mr. Rustine must submit a detailed cleanup plan to the E.P.A. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A preliminary plan alone is more than 100 pages, outlining the moon suits the crew would wear, the exact ratio of Ultra Clorox Germicidal Bleach to white vinegar that would be used to kill the anthrax spores and the dimensions of the chamber where the crew would be decontaminated.
The first task will be destroying everything, from the treasured archives to the lunch tray that Michael B. Kahane, A.M.I.'s chief counsel, left on his desk when the building was suddenly evacuated. According to the preliminary plan, that means soaking the photos and clippings in the bleach and vinegar, shredding them, wrapping them in plastic and duct tape, and disposing of them at a location not yet chosen.
John Taylor, a vice president of Consultants in Disease and Injury Control, an Atlanta company helping with the planning for the cleanup, said he did not yet know where all this material would eventually end up. But he said nothing would leave the building until tests showed it free of anthrax spores.
As the final plan for detoxifying the property is pieced together, A.M.I. employees are waiting with regret but also relief. Mr. Kahane, for one, is not sentimental. He said he would be surprised if anyone now wanted the personal possessions like artwork, family photos, fountain pen collections, source lists and such that he and 350 co-workers had left in the building.
"Anything in there that I owned, not touched for two years, I don't think I'd want it back," Mr. Kahane said, sitting in his austere new office below mock-ups of tabloid covers with headlines like "Demi and Ashton: Their New Love Nest!"
Exactly which A.M.I. photos will be gone forever is complicated to sort out, but this much is known: The company scanned into an electronic archive almost all the images that had actually appeared in its publications over the years. On the other hand, many thousands that the company had on file but had never used are now lost, said Ms. Cottay, the chief librarian, as are virtually all the old clippings, for which no electronic archive existed at the time.
The anthrax spores that infested the building are believed to have arrived in a letter addressed to the singer and actress Jennifer Lopez, in an envelope that contained bluish powder and a plastic Star of David. Federal health officials found traces of anthrax on all three floors of the 68,000-square-foot building — on desks, computers, carpets, a fax machine and shelves in the library where the archives were kept.
The question of who was responsible for the cleanup and for guarding the building lingered for over a year, as the company squabbled with the F.B.I., the E.P.A. and other government agencies. The environmental agency and the Palm Beach County Health Department quickly seized control of the building, Mr. Kahane said, although the company had to continue spending $50,000 a month for round-the-clock security and upkeep until it was sold. Even the air-conditioning has had to stay on, he said, because anthrax is believed to grow faster in humid conditions.
Two congressmen from Palm Beach County eventually proposed legislation to transfer the building to the federal government and make it a Superfund site, but the bill stalled. Boca Raton city officials and executives of the company grew increasingly nervous, envisioning a hurricane that would knock out the building's windows, causing the anthrax to spread hither and yon.
Mr. Kahane said Mr. Rustine offered the perfect solution because, unlike others who expressed interest in the building, he had the means to clean it properly. Mr. Rustine has a relative who is an executive at Marcor Remediation, the Maryland company that helped decontaminate the Senate building and will be doing the actual cleanup work here.
Mr. Rustine, who buys distressed property, said he wanted the building because he believed it could be coveted office space again. His company will be the first to move in, he added.
"It's a beautiful building in what is probably the most prestigious office park in Florida," he said. "And after we clean it, it will be the cleanest building in Florida, probably in the country."
He said he had no idea yet how much the cleanup would cost. It took more than $14 million and three months to disinfect the Senate building. In that case, workers pumped poisonous chlorine dioxide gas into the office of Senator Tom Daschle, who had received a letter containing anthrax just after A.M.I. did, and into the ventilation system. It took three attempts before testing showed that no anthrax spores remained in the building.
Though Mr. Rustine acknowledged that he occasionally glanced at the cover of The National Enquirer in the checkout line, he said he felt no pangs about destroying the photographs that have absorbed supermarket shoppers and helped define the nation's popular culture since the days of the Eisenhower administration.
"I don't marry my real estate," he said. "There is some curiosity there, but to me it's just a part of business that we have to clean up and eliminate them."