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Last Updated

08 Jun 2003

Source: Detroit News, October 20, 2001.

3 anthrax cases linked, officials say

FBI blankets New Jersey neighborhood where letters may have been mailed

 By Dan Eggen and Eric Pianin / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators confirmed Friday that the strains of deadly anthrax spores mailed to New York, Washington and Florida are virtually identical as federal agents, tracing the possible path of one letter laced with the bacteria, focused attention on a blue mailbox in suburban New Jersey.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told reporters that "tests to date have concluded that the strains (of anthrax) are indistinguishable" and likely came from the same source. The matching results provided the clearest indication yet that the same person or group is likely responsible for sending anthrax spores through the mail to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and American Media Inc. in South Florida, where a photo editor died after inhaling the microbes, officials said.

Officials also announced Friday that an employee at the New York Post who opens letters to the editor had developed cutaneous -- or skin-related -- anthrax on her finger. Meanwhile, a letter sent to the New York Times office in Rio de Janeiro and a travel brochure sent to a family in Buenos Aires -- both bearing U.S. postmarks -- have tested positive for anthrax, the American newspaper and Argentine health officials said Friday. Both documents were undergoing further testing.

In the Trenton, N.J., area, where one postal employee had previously been diagnosed with an anthrax infection and another had been exposed, officials said a third worker had developed an anthrax infection on his neck.

The new disclosures brought the total number of known anthrax infections to eight, including one fatality -- Robert Stevens, a photo editor at a Boca Raton, Fla., tabloid newspaper who died Oct. 5 after inhaling anthrax spores inside American Media Inc.'s headquarters.

The New Jersey cases have prompted officials to close a mail distribution center that serves 46 post offices, as well as a small post office in West Trenton, for testing. Several hundred agents from the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service converged on a single mail route in West Trenton, where a postal carrier has contracted cutaneous anthrax.

Because the unidentified worker came down with the disease on Sept. 27, some authorities suggested that she may have handled the letter sent to NBC. But others said it is not clear whether the woman handled that letter or others they have not yet detected. They noted that she was at work on Sept. 17 and 19, but not on Sept. 18, when the letter to Brokaw was postmarked.

There were differing accounts Friday about a specific mailbox from West Trenton that the FBI has taken away to test for traces of anthrax. Ridge said "the FBI has been able to identify the site where the letters were mailed" -- a reference to a specific mailbox. But FBI officials said later that no such conclusion had been made.

The FBI officials said the mail carrier identified a mailbox that may have held the Brokaw letter. One law enforcement official said the carrier remembered the envelope because it featured unusual, childlike handwriting and was addressed to a television celebrity.

But Dan Mihalko, a spokesman for the postal inspectors, said there are no collection boxes on the sick carrier's mail route. He said another carrier may have identified the box being tested by the FBI.

"The investigation is focusing on several different fronts, the mailbox being one of them," Mihalko said.

One FBI official said that even if the mailbox tests positive for anthrax, it will still leave open the question of whether the sender lives nearby or traveled some distance to cover his tracks.

"The theory at the moment is that it got put into a mailbox by someone, and it got picked up when a carrier cleared the box," the official said. "But the worry then is where do we go from there?"

Ridge and federal health officials briefing reporters on the unfolding crisis said the strain of anthrax found at NBC, in Daschle's office and at American Media was not "weaponized," meaning the particles were not substantially reduced in size or altered to make them easier to release into the environment.

Earlier this week, some Senate members described the anthrax microbes sent to the Capitol as "highly potent" and finely milled, while one senator suggested that they were "weapons grade." Surgeon General David Satcher explained Friday that "you can certainly have inhaled anthrax without having weaponized anthrax."

Authorities have previously said that the strains of anthrax found in New York and Florida matched, and that the envelopes sent to NBC and Daschle's office both featured similar block handwriting. The new test results go further, confirming that the same type of anthrax was sent to all three places, Ridge said, adding that one could draw the conclusion that all the anthrax came from a single source.

New York Post Chairman Lachlan Murdoch told reporters that a 32-year-old assistant to the editorial page editor noticed a small lesion on her index finger Sept. 22 that later became infected. She visited her doctor and started to take antibiotics. When she heard about the case at NBC on Oct. 12, she called the health department.

A biopsy came back negative, but blood samples came back positive for anthrax infection late Thursday. Murdoch said that the woman does not remember opening any threatening letters and came to work Friday.

"She is now back at work and has been incredibly brave," he said.

Three more New York Post workers who showed flu-like symptoms and 11 employees at other Murdoch-owned news organizations also were tested, officials said. City health officials conducted environmental tests on the ninth and 10th floors of the newspaper's building.

On Capitol Hill, health authorities reduced the number of Senate staffers and Capitol Police officers who had tested positive for exposure to anthrax from 31 to 28, based on additional testing.

The cases were confined to offices on the fifth and sixth floors of the southeast section of the Hart Senate Office Building, including Daschle's office, where the letter laced with anthrax spores was opened Monday.

One of the three eliminated from the list was a worker at the postal screening facility outside the Capitol complex, the officials said.

At a briefing Friday in the virtually deserted Capitol, officials said results of tests on 1,400 people have been negative. Authorities are still waiting for results from 2,500 other nasal swab tests.

Tests are continuing on all the samples, but "it does not appear" there will be additional results that are positive for anthrax, said Kenneth Maritsugu, the deputy surgeon general.

A sweep of the Capitol complex has produced no new signs of anthrax contamination, said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician. Anthrax had been detected in a mailroom in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and two Hart office suites. "It looks like there hasn't been broad exposure," Frist said.

Frist said officials will probably not be able to determine before late Sunday afternoon when Senate office buildings will reopen. Neither the House nor the Senate is scheduled to return until Tuesday.

As the anthrax investigation focused on the Trenton area Friday, postal employees sorted and distributed mail in the parking lots of the shuttered postal distribution center in Hamilton and the closed West Trenton post office.

The mail carrier infected with cutaneous anthrax picks up and delivers mail at 570 homes, apartments and businesses in West Trenton. During her workday, she picks up mail and stores it in a green "relay" box until the end of the day, said Ralph Stewart, a spokesman for the Postal Service's eastern area, which includes southern New Jersey. She then takes that mail to the West Trenton branch in Ewing, he said.

The office has 40 employees, including 25 letter carriers, Stewart said. None of the other workers at the post office has tested positive for the bacteria, officials said.

Raymond Weinmann, a mail carrier who knows the infected female carrier, said he is not concerned about contracting anthrax. "I've been on the lookout for suspicious things since September 11," Weinmann said. "I'm more worried about a pit bull attacking me than anthrax."