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Last Updated

20 Jan 2003

Source: Boca Raton News (Florida), October 6, 2002.

AMI -- one year later Perseverance keeps tabloid giant rolling following anthrax attack

by Aaron Shea

Editors Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the anthrax found in Boca Raton a year ago this weekend and its impact on the community and nation.

Activity is seemingly unrelenting in David Perel's office. National Enquirer staff members shuffle in and out of their editor-in-chiefís small workspace on a busy Wednesday afternoon, pitching story ideas and showing him photographs.

"I would say things are back to abnormal," Perel quips.

Two photos brought to his attention are of Australian actor Russell Crowe. Perel closely examines the pictures trying to determine if they depict heavy weight gain in the movie star or if the bulky motorcycle jacket heís wearing gives the illusion of added pounds. He eventually votes down the snapshots.

"People are interested if a celebrity gains weight," he explained as he glances over past covers of the weekly tabloid magazine pinned to his office wall. "They want to know how? Why? Is it for a new movie?"

Just a year ago, however, Croweís figure was of little concern to Perel. His wife, Jill, had been hospitalized for four days due to a toxic reaction to the antibiotic Cipro - and the health of two of his three children, along with his own well being, was up in the air.

The anthrax attack on the American Media Inc. building that had abruptly ended the life of 63-year-old Sun photographer Robert Stevens (case 5) had put Perelís personal life and busy career in disarray.

"It was on a Sunday I got the call at home and was told that there was anthrax in the building," said the 42-year-old Perel, who was an acquaintance of Stevens. "Two of my kids, my wife and even my dog had just been in the building. The next day, the health department had us on Cipro. My dog was even put on drugs. The scary part is you donít know if you are going to develop it [anthrax] or not. Itís just the type of experience you never forget."

Amazingly, Perel said, neither the multi-million selling National Enquirer nor the four other supermarket tabloids that were operated out of the 67,000-square-foot Boca Raton building at 5401 N.W. Broken Sound Blvd. missed an issue -- 14 million in total.

A new home

"What would you think if you received a phone call at 1 in the morning telling you that your office building has been closed, a deadly bacteria had been detected and that you must report for emergency testing first thing in the morning to see if your life is at risk?" said AMI Editorial Director Steve Coz. "And then, your heart fails even further when the voice adds Ďand bring your kids that happened to have visited mommy or daddy at work.í"

Immediately following the discovery of anthrax, believed to have been sent through the mail, in the three-story building, AMIís more than 300 employees -- including hundreds of family members and visitors that entered the complex -- lined up outside the Palm Beach County Health Department and were given prescriptions for Cipro, then scattered throughout offices in Delray Beach and Miami to continue their work.

"Forty-eight hours after being made homeless by the bioterrorist attack, we were building temporary work areas in a warehouse, running cable and telephone lines across the ceiling, and taking delivery of everything from paper to high-tech networking equipment," Coz said.

"Our corporate family worked in conditions that were impossible, with paper and pencils instead of personal computers," he said. "This is how we sent our response to the terrorists who thought they could cripple American industry. We went back to work."

Eventually, the company landed on its feet in a 53,000-square-foot space at 4950 Communication Ave. in Boca Ratonís T-Rex Technology Center in February 2002, where new security measures have been put into place, including moving the mailroom to an off-site location in Delray Beach, said Mike Kahane, general counsel for AMI.

The new offices hold no reminders of previous life in the facility in the Arvida Park of Commerce, which lies directly across the street from the companyís new home.

Millions of irreplaceable images, files, contact numbers and notebooks remain right where they were placed when employees abandoned the building on Oct. 7, 2001.

Retired reporter Ben Bolton said, however, the loss of those items doesnít compare to the loss of a human life.

"We all left on a Friday expecting to see each other Monday morning," said Bolton, adding that he lost 20 years of notebooks, files and a photo of his wife when the building was quarantined. "Anything left in the building canít compare to losing Bob Stevens," he said.

Stevensí AMI colleagues gathered for a private ceremony Saturday -- exactly one-year after his untimely death from inhaled anthrax -- to share memories of the man known for his permanent smile and witty comments.

One co-worker in particular has an affinity for Stevens. Mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco (case 7) was also infected with anthrax. He spent three weeks in the hospital and was on his deathbed, his doctors said. But a month after nearly dying, he recovered and a few months later returned to work at AMIís new building delivering mail to fellow employees.

"If Bob doesnít die, they think I have pneumonia," said Blanco, who recalled Stevens as his friend.

"Iím appreciative of his sacrifice, because if he didnít die as quickly as he did, [doctors] would not have discovered my illness until it was too late. Itís hard, frustrating to think about it that way."

Physically, Blanco said he feels well, but mentally, letting go of the incident has been nearly impossible. "I feel perfectly well. No side effects," said Blanco, fresh from a trip to New York City for live appearances on morning news shows.

"It"s something that will never die within me," said Blanco, a month away from his 75th birthday. "I own only bad memories of my experience. I hope no one ever suffers through what I went through."

Some, however, did suffer. Four other people died and 18 others were infected after anthrax-laced letters were sent to government buildings on Capitol Hill and television networks in New York City.

Not a single arrest has been made.

"I wonder if theyíll ever catch who did it," pondered Bolton.

Anthrax lives on in Boca

Last month, the quarantine on the yet-to-be-cleaned AMI building was lifted as federal investigators conducted a 12-day investigation there.

During the FBIís most recent search of the building, which wrapped up Sept. 10, investigators took thousands of samples and removed hundreds of anthrax-tainted letters and other items to pinpoint what introduced the killer bacteria into the three-story facility.

But the government has released no new information publicly as the building off Yamato Road remains riddled with anthrax.

Little has been done at the $4.6 million facility since last October. It remains under lock and key, fenced in and under 24-hour security surveillance.

Following the completion of testing at the facility last November, federal investigators sealed the building, returned control of it to AMI and laid the responsibility for cleaning up the structure solely on the company. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said it is not mandated by Congress to assist a private company in cleaning up a contaminated building.

But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who calls the building a health hazard to the area, is trying to change that. The Democrat from Florida will propose two pieces of legislation for the cleanup of the building to the Senate -- with one measure focusing on getting cleanup assistance from the EPA and the other authorizing the federal government to buy the building for $1 and then pick up the check for the multi-million-dollar cleanup.

Life goes on

Although the contaminated building is within shouting distance from AMIís new offices, Perel said life has returned to the way it should be. His wife has obtained her masterís degree, his children continue to smile and he continues to delve into the lives of the rich and famous.

"You canít live in fear," Perel explained. "One aspect is, you put things in perspective in terms of the big picture. The friendships here are deeper than before. You realize you canít get upset over the little things. It was a horrible nightmare to say the least, but it doesnít change your feelings about what you do. I still think this is the greatest job in America."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.