State Dept. seeks letter laced with anthrax

Search based on theory another envelope is still to be found

November 14, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The State Department is searching its mail system for an undiscovered anthrax-laced letter after testing at an off-site mailroom backed up health officials' theory that another such letter exists, a department spokesman said yesterday.

"We are now proceeding to look at all the mail that we have held up, frozen, sealed off, in mail rooms in this building, annexes and around the world," said spokesman Richard Boucher.

The anthrax attacks came to public attention last month with the death of Bob Stevens, 63, a tabloid photo editor in Florida who became the first inhalation anthrax fatality in the United States since 1976. Since then, three more victims have died, and 13 others have contracted inhalation or skin anthrax. One of those victims was a State Department mailroom employee - since released from the hospital - who contracted the more serious inhaled form.

Anthrax-laden letters have been mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and The New York Post.

But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors have maintained the State Department worker could not have contracted inhalation anthrax from handling mail that had merely come in contact with one of the known letters. Boucher said yesterday that the amount and location of anthrax spores found in the facility where the sick employee worked "support the theory that there is a letter like the one sent to Sen. Daschle that has moved through our mail system."

Eight of 55 samples taken last week at the State Department building in Sterling, Va., tested positive for anthrax, with traces found in three separate mail sorters. Six of the eight samples came from one mail sorter, Boucher said.

The State Department shut down its mail system Oct. 24 and alerted its embassies and consulates to freeze diplomatic pouches the next day. Since then, anthrax contamination has been confirmed in a pouch sent to the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru.

Boucher said officials believe that the contaminated letter did not reach its intended recipient and will be found somewhere in the "great quantities" of halted mail. The department will begin searching through undelivered mail in the Sterling building and all other facilities, including overseas posts, whose mail was processed there.

A similar search is under way on Capitol Hill, where FBI agents last week began combing through tons of undelivered government mail looking for additional letters. The search was slow to begin, partly out of concern about the danger of exposing investigators to anthrax spores, officials said. The hope is more discoveries might provide additional clues about the source of the anthrax and who sent it.

The unopened State Department mail appears to be the best bet for finding more clues. While traces of anthrax have been turning up almost daily in Washington mail rooms, officials have said that, except for the Sterling facility, the amounts have been consistent with cross-contamination from the Washington postal hub that processed the Daschle letter.

Meanwhile, the anthrax scare continued to reverberate. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that U.S. Capitol Police have suspended an unnamed officer and opened a criminal probe into whether he committed an anthrax hoax by leaving a note and powdery substance in a House office building. The powder, left Nov. 7 at the officer's post in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building, was determined not to be harmful, said Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police.

The College Board said yesterday it was contacting up to 7,800 high school students who took the SAT exam Oct. 13 to offer them a chance to retake the test or get a refund. The ungraded tests apparently are being held in quarantined New Jersey postal facilities.

Also, Postal Service officials said yesterday they plan to irradiate hundreds of thousands of children's letters to Santa Claus to eliminate the threat of anthrax exposure. Letters to Santa have been opened by volunteers in New York since the 1920s.

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