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Last Updated

17 Feb 2007

Source: Palm Beach Post, February 8, 2007.

Former AMI building declared free of anthrax contamination

By Gretel Sarmiento, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, February 08, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH Federal environmental experts have concluded that the former American Media Inc. building in Boca Raton has been cleared of the anthrax spores that killed a photo editor more than five years ago and shuttered the tabloid publisher's headquarters.

The 160-page report was sent to Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department. She will review it and decide by next week whether the building, which she ordered closed on Oct. 10, 2001, can reopen.

Malecki did not indicate Wednesday what her decision would be, but her reaction after getting the positive assessment was clear.

"It was a relief," she said. "It's been five years of my life. But it will be over soon, I guarantee it."

The report's conclusion: "In summary, based in the information available, the technical working group concludes that the measures used to treat and remove B. anthracis at the former AMI building at 5401 Broken Sound Blvd. were successful.

"The technical working group believes that the building can be safely reoccupied, normal working activities resumed, and building contents reused."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Public Health Service, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency reviewed the data.

News of the report brought back memories to Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams.

"It's really been an odyssey," Abrams said Wednesday. "This is a significant step closer to having it reopen."

Barely six months into his first term as mayor, Abrams found himself working around the clock and meeting with federal officials to deal with "the crisis."

"All of the networks were running a picture of the building 24 hours with the dateline of Boca Raton underneath it. None of this was in my playbook," Abrams said. "But we responded to the contamination and started to rebuild the image of Boca."

The AMI attack came just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had shaken the nation's sense of security. For many, seeing planes fly into buildings was horrifying enough, but the idea that a letter in their mailbox could kill them shook them to their core.

Sun photo editor Bob Stevens' death on Oct. 5, 2001, forced parent AMI to shut down its multimillion-dollar building. Stevens co-worker Ernie Blanco was nearly killed after anthrax exposure. He now lives in West Palm Beach. Stevens lived in suburban Lantana

The U.S. Postal Service was nearly crippled by the discovery of anthrax in the mail. Police responded to scores of frantic calls, most of which turned out to be cases of sugar or baby powder.

Three lawsuits stemming from the attack are still active, including one by Stevens' widow against the federal government and another by Greg Mathieson of AMI Photo News Agency against AMI over 1,400 photos and negatives he never got back.

They were among the millions of tabloid staples stored in boxes in the basement, including photos of Bigfoot, celebrities caught in compromising positions and even the photo of Elvis in his coffin.

Former Boca Raton City Councilman Dave Freudenberg on Wednesday said he believed all along the building was clean of anthrax since the first cleanup efforts were performed in 2004 by fumigation company BioONE.

"If they told me I would have no problem walking in," Freudenberg said, "I would go right now."

Freudenberg, who was on the city council in 2001, blames bureaucracy for the delay in reopening the building.

"I was there when it all started," he said. "Now it's time we put this chapter in the city history behind us and we forget what that building did."

BioONE, a fumigation company associated with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, fumigated the three-story facility with chlorine dioxide in July 2004. But the building remained closed when BioONE refused to release the cleanup data, claiming the building's owner, David Rustine, did not renew its contract or pay for the fumigation efforts.

Rustine, who paid only $40,000 for a contaminated building worth $3.8 million, hired MARCOR Remediation to finish cleaning the boxes of AMI materials in 2005. This past November, MARCOR began the final cleanup and sampling to ensure all spores had been killed.

Samples were kept inside sealed boxes and sent to a laboratory in Houston that reported that all were negative for anthrax.

After reviewing the data, the federal advisory group submitted its conclusion to Malecki, the county health department chief.

"These negative results, particularly after the thousands of previous negative results for spore strips, wipe samples and air tests in the building, reinforces that all criteria for removing the quarantine and opening the building have been met," the report said.

The fate of the building now rests in Malecki's hands.

If the building reopens, some say it won't take much to get it back on track.

"It was a terrible tragedy what happened there, and people will remember that, but time heals all wounds," said Troy McLellan, Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. "It will make a great corporate headquarters."

Like McLellan, Abrams is looking to the future.

"It could be a very productive office building - that's what we are looking forward to," he said. "It would close the book - not just the chapters, the whole book."


Sept. 19, 2001: Eight days after the Sept. 11 attacks, tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens opens a letter in his AMI office and a white powder spills out.

Oct. 5: Stevens dies of what authorities later determine is anthrax poisoning.

Oct. 10: Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department, signs a quarantine order for the AMI building and closes it.

Oct. 17: At least 28 people working in the U.S. Capitol test positive for anthrax exposure.

January 2002: Hart Senate Office Building reopens after the federal government spends $27 million to decontaminate it.

April 2003: Real estate investor David Rustine buys the AMI building for $40,000, a fraction of its $3.8 million value.

Sept. 24: Stevens' widow, Maureen, sues the federal government over his death.

July 12, 2004: BioONE, a joint venture between former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Saber Technical Services, decontaminates the former AMI building and plans to use it as its headquarters.

April 14, 2005: BioONE begins decontaminating anthrax-laden boxes at the former AMI building.

April 18: U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley refuses to dismiss Maureen Stevens' lawsuit. The federal government appeals to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta. A decision is pending.

May 31: Rustine declines to extend BioONE's contract to clean up boxes stored at the former AMI building.

June 9: BioONE announces suspension of the cleanup.

July: Rustine hires MARCOR Remediation Inc. to reclean thousands of boxes already fumigated by BioONE.

Week of Dec. 19: All anthrax-laden boxes are decontaminated.

May 2006: MARCOR returns to the site to collect post-decontamination samples.

November: MARCOR starts final round of fumigation and testing.

December: Samples are analyzed by Microbiology Specialists Inc., and the results are turned over to a federal advisory panel.

Wednesday: The panel reports that the former AMI is clear of anthrax.

Compiled by staff researcher Krista Pegnetter and staff writers Gretel Sarmiento and Eliot Kleinberg