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Last Updated

29 Nov 2002

Source: The Miami Herald, October 4, 2002.

Anniversary of Stevens' death marks year since anthrax attacks

ADRIAN SAINZ, Associated Press Writer

BOCA RATON, Fla. - The death of Robert Stevens (case 5) from anthrax one year ago Saturday is being remembered in different ways.

His colleagues at The Sun and the other five tabloid newspapers operated by American Media Inc. will gather for a private ceremony to share memories of the man known for his permanent smile and witty comments.

Scientists say the first known U.S. death from the inhaled form of the disease since 1976 was a launching point for improvements in diagnosis and treatment.

Mostly, Americans will recall the chaos caused by last year's anthrax attacks that killed Stevens and four others and infected an additional 18. No one has been arrested.

Stevens, a photo editor for The Sun, is believed to have contracted the disease from a tainted letter sent to the Palm Beach County office building that also housed the National Enquirer and Globe.

A mailroom employee, Ernesto Blanco (case 7), also was infected with anthrax. He spent three weeks in the hospital and was once near death, his doctors said. But he recovered and still works at AMI's new building.

"I feel perfectly well. No side effects," Blanco said Thursday, fresh off a trip to New York City for live appearances on morning news shows. While some at the company want to forget their anthrax experience, Blanco can't.

"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."

Blanco called Stevens a friend and said it bothers him that only by Stevens' death did he live.

"If Bob doesn't die, they think I have pneumonia," Blanco says. "I'm appreciative of his sacrifice, because if he didn't die as quickly as he did, (doctors) would not have discovered my illness until it was too late. It's hard, frustrating to think about it that way."

After Stevens' death, every AMI employee received tests for anthrax, and were placed on antibiotics such as Cipro. Writers and editors assembled the six tabloids without missing a deadline, despite working from scattered South Florida offices.

CEO David Pecker now refuses to discuss the attacks.

"Everybody appears to have taken attitude of leaving it behind us," company spokesman Gerald McKelvey said.

Reporter Ben Bolton, who retired Feb. 1, said it seems like the attacks were two or three years ago.

"It seems like an awful big year," he said.

Bolton and the other employees abandoned their building last Oct. 7, never to return. Executives who entered the quarantined building with FBI agents and scientists last month said it seemed frozen in time.

"We all left on a Friday expecting to see each other Monday morning," Bolton said. He lost 20 years of notebooks, files and a photo of his wife when the building was quarantined, but "anything left in the building can't compare to losing Bob Stevens."

Life in Florida changed in the weeks following the AMI attack. Anthrax hoaxes were daily occurrences, from Camp Blanding to South Miami, with emergency crews in moon suits expending valuable resources pursuing fake threats.

People opened letters containing mysterious white powders that were actually corn starch or talc. Offices began policies of opening mail before it reaches employees, a change still in place in many workplaces.

As a result of the hoaxes, the state passed a law that anyone convicted of delivering a hoax anthrax threat could get 15 years in prison.

The entire country became ensnared in the anthrax scare. Letters containing weaponized anthrax were sent to the offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and to television news anchors Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. Post offices became relay points of anthrax spores, and the U.S. House, Senate, Supreme Court and the White House were inspected for evidence of the disease.

Changes also have occurred in the small but growing world of scientists who work with anthrax. Methods of diagnosis, treatment and cleanup improved, and anthrax funding and research increased.

"As insiders, we were shellshocked that people would get around to using this to kill and cause terror," said Philip Hanna, a University of Michigan microbiology professor.

The mortality rate for inhaled anthrax before last year had been documented at about 90 percent, Hanna said. But the death rate in last year's attacks was about 45 percent, he said.

He attributed to advances in technology, from improved methods of diagnosis, training and equipment such as ventilators.

"There have been huge advances in intensive care units," Hanna said. "Mr. Blanco and other survivors reaped the rewards of much time and investment."

After the attacks, Congress approved a 20-fold increase in biodefense research funding within the National Institutes of Health, said Richard Ebright, microbiology professor at Rutgers University.

But Congress may have jumped the gun, Ebright said, because investigators now suspect that the mailings came from within the U.S. research community. If more researchers have access to anthrax, there is more of a chance of a repeat of last fall, he said.

"This increase has made us less secure," Ebright said. "Every one of the researchers becomes an accidental or intentional source of release in the future."

Hanna, a member of the American Society of Microbiologists, said group members received letters after the AMI attack, stating that members "may know who this person is and we should be vigilant and report suspicious activities." He said he has been interviewed by federal authorities.

Hanna also pointed out that the anthrax attacks put pressure on the scientific community to increase security and devise better treatment methods.

"We're going to be held accountable for our own members and take care of the nation's health needs," Hanna said.

Bolton recalls the days after Stevens was diagnosed with anthrax and the fear and doubt of some co-workers, but echoes McKelvey's sentiment.

"People don't talk about it anymore. No one is frightened or scared."

Bolton poses a question many have pondered.

"I wonder if they'll ever catch who did it?"