Anthrax spores found on 3 more

Bacteria from letter to NBC in New York

no symptoms seen

October 15, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Three more people in New York City who touched a letter sent to NBC News that carried threats, the anthrax bacteria and an Islamic phrase have tested positive for having traces of the bacterium on their bodies, but they do not report any symptoms.

The reports yesterday brought the nationwide number of people exposed to the rare disease to 12 -- including a photographer in Florida who died and an NBC News employee in New York whose skin erupted in rashes, officials said.

Authorities suspect that terrorists might have sent letters carrying anthrax spores -- found in a brownish or white powder -- to three places: NBC in New York, the Sun supermarket tabloid in Florida and a Microsoft office in Nevada.

But they do not know whether the incidents are linked to each other or to the Sept. 11 hijackings that killed nearly 5,400 people.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday that the instances of anthrax-contaminated mail in the United States should be considered "bioterrorism."

But he said it was too early to blame Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, which President Bush has named responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"There's no question it's bioterrorism," Thompson said of the outbreaks, while speaking on a CNN talk show yesterday. "It's a biological agent. It's terrorism, it's a crime. ... But whether or not it's connected to al-Qaida, we can't say conclusively."

In Nevada yesterday, a health official said she had encouraging news about tests conducted on employees of Microsoft in Reno. A threatening letter sent to the company from Malaysia tested positive for anthrax spores last week.

Barbara Hunt, health officer for Washoe County, Nev., said at a news conference yesterday that preliminary tests had come back negative for four Microsoft employees who might have come in contact with the letter. Results are pending for two others potentially exposed to anthrax.

"This is very good news," Hunt told reporters. "We are very optimistic that we will see no new cases of anthrax from this incident."

Hunt said that Microsoft employees might have avoided infection by handling the letter very carefully. Workers at the software company plan to return to work today.

In New York, a police officer and two lab technicians who helped investigate the anthrax sent to NBC are being treated with antibiotics for exposure to the bacteria.

But the three have no symptoms of the disease, officials said yesterday.

A police officer who retrieved an envelope containing anthrax at NBC on Friday was found to have spores in his nose, as did one lab technician who examined the envelope.

Another lab technician was found to have a spore on her face, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said yesterday, according to news reports.

"When they were tested, minuscule spores were found," Giuliani said at a news conference.

The mayor emphasized that exposure to the spores does not necessarily mean infection and said the three are expected to be fine. "They are being treated," Giuliani said. "This does not mean they have anthrax."

The three were investigating a letter addressed to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw postmarked Sept. 18 in Trenton, N.J. It was opened by NBC News employees between Sept. 19 and Sept. 25 on the third floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, according to New York City officials.

That letter, which has been found to contain traces of anthrax, had no return address and contained an unspecified threat and a brown granular substance, FBI officials said, according to wire reports.

NBC News reported that the letter contained "a common Islamic phrase," although the phrase was not identified by the network.

FBI agents were interviewing mail carriers Saturday in Trenton as part of a joint investigation with postal inspectors to find the sender of the letter, NBC reported.

One of Brokaw's assistants, Erin M. O'Connor, 38, tested positive for a skin infection with anthrax last week. Investigators believe she contracted the infection when she handled the letter.

A second NBC News employee who touched the letter is taking antibiotics for possible symptoms of anthrax, including skin lesions, a mild fever and swollen lymph nodes, said Greg Butler, spokesman for the New York City Department of Health. But tests to determine if she has anthrax were not complete yesterday. "The results are not back yet, but they will be back this week," Butler said.

Andrew Lack, president of NBC News, told CNN yesterday that odds are good that none of his other employees has been infected.

In south Florida yesterday, an FBI Miami spokeswoman confirmed that Gloria Irish, the wife of Sun editor Mike Irish, rented apartments to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Delray Beach, Fla., in June. The two men, Marwan al-Shehhi and Hamza Alghamdi, were on United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the World Trade Center. "At this point we're treating it as a coincidence," FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said.

At The Boston Globe, national editor Kenneth Cooper admitted himself to Massachusetts General Hospital on Saturday after opening a threatening letter and feeling flu-like symptoms, Al Larkin, senior vice president for external affairs, said yesterday.

After an examination, doctors concluded the editor's symptoms were not similar enough to anthrax to warrant antibiotics, and the editor plans to return to work today, Larkin said.

"He went to the hospital as a precaution," Larkin said.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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