Woman in N.Y. 4th anthrax case

NBC worker infection prompts fears media target of mail attack

Scares nationwide

Incident doesn't seem tied to Fla., FBI says

October 13, 2001|By Tom Pelton and Scott Shane | Tom Pelton and Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

An NBC News employee in New York became yesterday the fourth American to be discovered with a rare anthrax bacterium, raising fears that media companies may have been targeted for a biological attack through the mail.

The possibility that the anthrax cases in Florida and New York are part of a coordinated bioterrorism attack sent a chill across the nation yesterday. Buildings were evacuated, and top federal officials warned against opening suspicious mail. Scares involving spilled powder and unusual letters were reported all over the United States and Europe.

As an intensive investigation continued into three anthrax cases at a tabloid newspaper chain in Florida, federal officials evacuated NBC's third floor offices at 30 Rockefeller Center yesterday morning. Experts were analyzing powder found in a suspicious letter that the employee opened before a rash erupted on her skin.

The woman, an assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, is in good condition with a form of the disease that is less deadly than the inhaled variety that killed a photographer at the Boca Raton, Fla., tabloid last week.

The FBI said it had no evidence linking the New York and Florida anthrax cases or tying them to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But Vice President Dick Cheney said, "The only responsible thing for us to do is proceed on the basis that it could be linked."

"We know that [terrorist leader Osama bin Laden] has over the years tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction, both biological and chemical weapons," Cheney said in an interview with PBS. "We know that he's trained people in his camps in Afghanistan - we have copies of the manuals that they've actually used to train people with respect to how to deploy and use these kinds of substances."

Medical experts said the sudden appearance in office buildings of a rare disease associated with livestock points toward criminal intentions. The similarity of targets and methods in New York and Florida has heightened suspicions.

The New York Times briefly evacuated its Manhattan offices after Judith Miller, a reporter who has written on bin Laden and bioterrorism, opened an envelope containing a white powder. Like the letter sent to NBC, the envelope sent to Miller was postmarked in St. Petersburg, Fla., the FBI said. Initial tests for anthrax were negative.

A similar scare occurred at the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, where the newspaper building was evacuated when a Halloween card was opened and found to contain powder, which proved to be harmless. Other false alarms were reported from a suburban Denver hospital, the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va., a Burbank, Calif., television station and a Microsoft office in Reno, Nev.

During a Washington news conference yesterday, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the possibility of bioterrorism "a threat that continues to darken our country." But he warned against panic.

"If individuals receive mail of which they are suspicious, they should not open it, they should not shake it," Ashcroft said. "They should leave the area of the mail and call the local law enforcement and health authorities so that the mail can be appropriately dealt with."

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson stressed again that anthrax is not transmitted from person to person and urged Americans not to become overwhelmed with fear. "Don't be intimidated. The terrorists want to scare us, and they want to affect our daily life and see us living in fear," Thompson said. "We cannot let them succeed. We need to live our lives and just be more aware as we go about our business."

At post offices in Baltimore and nationwide, security measures in place since Sept. 11 were heightened yesterday. They're inspecting packages and letters before they're delivered, focusing particularly on high-profile companies and individuals.

"Up until this time, we have not ever seen an incident where actual biological hazards have been transmitted through the United States mails," said Ken Newman, deputy chief of the U.S. postal inspector's office. He said fraudulent threats and hoaxes will be investigated and prosecuted.

In the New York case, NBC News reported that a letter addressed to Brokaw and containing white powder was opened Sept. 25 by his assistant.

Three days later, the woman developed a low-grade fever and a rash. She went to see a doctor, who gave her an antibiotic, Cipro. Yesterday morning, biopsy results showed that she had the cutaneous, or skin, form of anthrax, New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani said at a news conference.

Although early tests of the powder did not reveal any anthrax, those tests may have been inadequate because the sample was so small. More testing is under way, and federal officials said they believe the letter was the likely source of the woman's infection.

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