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Last Updated

15 Dec 2002

Source: Newsday, October 14, 2001.


Letter to Brokaw traced

By Joshua Robin and Rocco Parascandola, STAFF WRITERS

A letter postmarked Sept. 18 from Trenton, N.J., and containing sand-like granules is apparently the source of anthrax in an aide to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, authorities said yesterday.

The disease did not come from white powder found in a hate-filled letter postmarked Sept. 20 from St. Petersburg, Fla., as authorities had speculated.

It instead came in another threatening letter Erin O'Connor (case 2) opened between Sept. 19-25, that was kept inside another envelope at NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center until FBI agents discovered it Friday.

During the two weeks, the letter was handled by "a handful" of O'Connor's associates, who must now be tested, authorities said yesterday.

One employee, who sources said is a female intern, has shown symptoms of the illness, including a rash, fever and swollen lymph nodes. Dr. Neal Cohen, the city's health commissioner, said the unidentified individual is taking antibiotics and is doing well.

Cohen said a handful of other NBC employees who came into contact with the letter also are taking antibiotics. He emphasized it is safe for NBC employees to go to work. Officials said 358 people who work at the network have been tested.

"The public health risk associated with that building at this point is pretty close to negligible," he said.

It was unlikely that a white powder that fell on a New York Times reporter Friday contained anthrax, officials said. The letter to Judith Miller, postmarked Oct. 5 from St. Petersburg, also contained a hate-spewed missive. Another powder-filled letter postmarked from St. Petersburg and sent to the St. Petersburg Times also appeared unlikely to contain anthrax, officials in New York said.

Barry Mawn, the director of the FBI's New York City office, said agents retrieved the Trenton letter Friday while at NBC investigating the letter with the powder.

He would not release much information about the letter postmarked from Trenton, citing security concerns.

"All I'll give you on that is that there was no return address, it was an anonymous letter, white envelope," he said, adding that it was addressed to Brokaw. "There was a threat in the letter, but I'm not going to give you the wording." A source said the letter contained "general threats against America."

Although the brown granules had been discarded, the letter and envelope were tested Friday night, and health officials said a swab of the envelope was found to have traces of anthrax.

O'Connor, 38, is recovering, officials say.

"Now we have identified the missing link, so to speak," said NBC president and chief executive Robert C. Wright, who was at yesterday's news conference. Wright said a number of people at NBC News received threatening letters during the past several weeks. Not all of them were turned over to security officials, he said, even the one containing the granules.

Even though the envelope wasn't in an airtight container, it didn't necessarily pose a large public health risk, according to Dr. Stephen Ostroff, chief epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Simply keeping the envelope closed inside another envelope, which is apparently what happened - the risk associated with that ... is pretty close to zero," he said.

Investigators are still looking for those responsible for the hoaxes sent from St. Petersburg. "As far as we're concerned, these negatives ... are as serious [as the letter containing anthrax]," Mawn said.

Meanwhile, as word spread of what appears to be the city's first anthrax case, some New Yorkers with questions about the bacteria went to area emergency rooms, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said yesterday at a news conference.

Outside Columbia Presbyterian Center in Manhattan yesterday, postal worker Gerson Carrathala, 35, there visiting his father, said he is worried and is wearing gloves at work. Still, he had not considered getting hold of Cipro, the anti-anthrax drug.

His wife, Martha, 41, said she has put her trust in the government.

"We have to try and lead a normal life," she said.

St. Vincent's Hospital Manhattan spokesman Bill McCann said 30 such people came to the hospital Friday with questions. The stream stopped when Giuliani appeared on television and told the public not to worry, McCann said.

Giuliani did the same yesterday during the news conference. "Right now, we have one case," the mayor said.

Staff writer Sean Gardiner contributed to this story.