CONTAMINATED HEADQUARTERS 'IN LIMBO'



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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: USA Today, September 30, 2002.

Contaminated headquarters of tabloid publisher 'in limbo'

By Deborah Sharp, USA TODAY

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- At first, the story seemed more outlandish than any tabloid tale: Anthrax had infiltrated the publishing headquarters of The National Enquirer, and a photo editor was dead.

The nation would learn a lot about the disease in the weeks after the death of Bob Stevens (case 5) on Oct. 5, 2001. The Florida man was the first of the anthrax victims. The building owned by the newspaper's parent company, American Media Inc., is still quarantined, and the biggest questions remain: Who targeted the tabloid company, and why?

The FBI says it's still investigating. Federal agents re-entered the company's former headquarters for two weeks last month to trace the path that anthrax took through the building in letters presumed to have held the powdery substance.

Medical investigators have said the same anthrax strain that killed Stevens killed subsequent anthrax victims. But American Media's case was different from later incidents, in which anthrax-suspicious aides alerted authorities and tainted letters were recovered. Last September, the disease was not yet on the national radar screen. American Media, which publishes five supermarket tabloids in addition to The National Enquirer, commonly received weird mail. No one suspected that such mail, nicknamed "loony letters," could deliver a lethal disease.

The letter was never found and may have been tossed out and incinerated with company trash.

In addition to Stevens, 63, two mailroom employees also tested positive for exposure. One never developed symptoms, but the second became gravely ill. Mailroom chief Ernesto Blanco (case 7), who nearly died during a 17-day stay in the hospital, seems to have recovered more fully than some of the other survivors. He is back to work with the company's 330 other employees in another building.

Boca Raton officials and Florida's congressional delegation have been lobbying the federal government to take over decontamination of the American Media building, at an estimated cost of $7 million to $9 million. It is deemed a public health hazard. And some locals fear anthrax could be dispersed should a hurricane hit it.

American Media's president, David Pecker, estimates the attack has cost his company $10 million already, including $50,000 a month for security at the abandoned building. The company has had to relocate and buy new computers, furnishings and business equipment. Since the original headquarters was quarantined Oct. 7, 2001, nothing has been removed. Coffee cups and family photos still sit on desks. Fish in aquariums are long dead.

"It's still in limbo," says Gretchen Hitchner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Nelson has proposed three options for the American Media building:

The federal government buys it for $1, cleans it, then sells it and keeps any profits. The company had just completed extensive renovations when anthrax struck, and Pecker says the 68,000-square-foot building was then worth $20 million.

The government assists in cleanup and ships the building's contents to the Fort Detrick Army base in Maryland. American Media has been unable to find anyone in the private sector willing to take the waste.

The government turns the site, which had the most extensive contamination, into a laboratory to study anthrax.