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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2001

Germ fears darken pastel paradise of Boca Raton

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH
BLADE NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Just over the tops of the gardenia bushes, the elderly woman spotted the culprit: a man in a gas mask - armed with a hose - spraying a strange mist into the air.

Startled, she grabbed her phone and dialed 911.

With police crews rushing to the quiet suburban neighborhood last week - and people drawn to their front doors - the drama was about to begin.

But by the time police cornered the bio-terrorist suspect, the scare was over: The man was wearing a dust mask while sandblasting his backyard pool.

The unfolding outbreak of anthrax at a local tabloid headquarters two weeks ago has thrown this community into a crisis.

Hundreds of people have been calling fire-rescue workers and police because of suspicious letters, packages, and events.

More than a dozen office buildings have been evacuated after nervous workers fretted over strange-looking mail.

This is America's first front line in the war on bio-terrorism.

Since the discovery of the lethal microbes at the American Media, Inc., offices and the death of photo editor Bob Stevens on Oct. 5, the outbreak has expanded into the heart of the nation's capital and the New York offices of the country's broadcasting giants.

It has turned into hoaxes and scares across the country as the government deals with a new and insidious type of terrorism.

But nowhere have the effects been as lethal and controversial as in this community of pastel shopping centers, exclusive golf courses, and pink flamingo logos.

“It's scary,” said resident Tom Wilson, 51. “This is where you would almost least expect something like this. It seems like everyone is on the lookout for something suspicious.”

Days after the outbreak, federal health officials in white haz-mat suits and green boots still are conducting a grim, daily search for more sources of the germ while trying to quell public panic.

The first chapter of the war on bio-terrorism is being written here - a test case that has exposed the federal government's frustrations and often inability to deal with a new bacterial threat, say federal and local officials.

A breakdown in communication between federal and local officials and often changing and inaccurate information released to the public may have led to more panic and mass confusion, they say.

Earlier statements from federal officials assuring citizens the anthrax bacteria that killed Mr. Stevens was naturally occurring, isolated, and unlikely to be sent through the mail, all turned out to be wrong.

“We've been less than candid with the American people about some of the things that have happened in our own state,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Foley, (R., West Palm Beach). “If the government was trying to keep people from panicking, it was having just the opposite effect.”

Since Mr. Stevens' death - the nation's first fatality from anthrax since 1976 - another employee at the same tabloid has come down with the disease, and five others have tested positive for exposure.

Last week, minute particles of the germ were found in a mail slot at the main postal distribution center on the western fringes of town - the first sign the germ could be on the loose.

The discoveries set off a flurry of calls to doctors' offices, pharmacies, and veterans' clinics by people asking for antibiotics in case they've come in contact with tainted mail or people.

More than a dozen people went to the Boca Raton Community Hospital, saying they were afraid they may have been exposed to anthrax. No one has tested positive, said Dr. George Miceli, chief of emergency medicine.

The situation “is putting this community on the extreme edge,” said Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, whose district includes Boca Raton.

Experts say it's not just the anthrax that has created anxiety in this city of 72,500 in south Palm Beach County.

Two weeks before bio-terrorism exploded on the scene, it was revealed that more than half of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York chose South Florida as their training grounds.

The American Media headquarters is within two miles of the Delray Racquet Club where some of the terrorists lived last summer.

Mohamed Atta, the suspected ringleader, flew planes at the Lantana airport, less than a mile from Mr. Stevens' home.

Though officials say they have not found a connection between the hijackers and anthrax in the mail, the revelations were enough “to cause mass hysteria,” said Dr. Andrew Rosen, founder of the Center for the Treatment of Phobias and Anxiety Disorders in Delray Beach.

“Keep in mind that your average, everyday citizens were already saying, `That's the same motel where the terrorists stayed,' and `That's the restaurant where the terrorists ate.' And it's pretty scary.

“Now, all of a sudden, someone dies of anthrax here and you have bio-terrorism. You can imagine that people down here are feeling pretty vulnerable.”

Unlike Miami, Boca Raton long has been known as a quiet enclave of South Florida where people from Toledo and other industrial cities moved years ago to start new lives while working for some of America's best known electronic corporations: IBM, Siemens, and Sensormatic.

“Who would have thought that something like this could happen in Boca?” said Dr. Rosen. “We're supposed to have golf courses and beaches. Not terrorism.”

Further straining the situation, people are making hoax calls about bombs and suspicious packages, causing more confusion for fire-rescue workers and police.

“It's not getting better. It's getting worse,” said Nigel Baker, a spokesman for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue.

A Boca Raton Fire-Rescue Special Operations unit member works on cleanup of anthrax-tained American Media offices. A Boca Raton Fire-Rescue Special Operations unit member works on cleanup of anthrax-tained American Media offices.
AP Enlarge

Bob Stevens plopped down at his computer and lifted the letter close to his face to get a better glimpse. It was Sept. 19, and a strange letter had been sent to The Sun, one of the tabloids located in the American Media headquarters.

The letter was addressed to entertainer Jennifer Lopez, with sparkles on the paper and what appeared to be a Star of David.

Fellow workers recalled the 63-year-old photo editor put the letter close to his eyes to read the fine print, according to published reports.

Experts now believe it was at that point that the popular photojournalist breathed in the particles that eventually claimed his life - and ushered in a new era in terrorism on U.S. soil.

But it was days before any symptoms would appear - and the source of the germ would be discovered.

Sept. 26 was Mr. Stevens' last workday at American Media - a beige, four-story building in the center of a tree-lined Boca Raton office park. The next morning, he and his wife, Maureen, left in their car for a trip through the mountains of western North Carolina.

Three days after arriving at their daughter's home near Asheville - with the trees changing to bright red and gold - he felt strangely ill, and decided to cut the trip short.

With his wife driving, the couple made it home on Oct. 1. Still wretchedly sick the next day, Mr. Stevens was taken by his wife to nearby JFK Medical Center.

Hospital officials called Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist, and immediately asked for a spinal tap. By the time the doctor arrived at the medical center, Mr. Stevens had slipped into a coma.

Dozens of tests were run on the victim's blood and other body fluids. And then Dr. Bush noticed something strange: rod-shaped microbes under his microscope were eerily similar to something he had seen in textbooks: bacillus anthracis.

“I didn't want to say I thought it was anthrax, because I would have been laughed at,” he recalled.

After rushing specimens to a state lab and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Dr. Bush found out his hunches were correct.

The news set off shock waves across South Florida - and all the way to the U.S. Capitol.

Federal officials were quick to downplay the diagnosis, saying the anthrax was from nature, and not terrorists. “It appears this is just an isolated case,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Federal health officials started to comb Mr. Stevens' home for any clues.

Though the victim was given heavy doses of Cipro, the powerful antibiotic that can prevent anthrax, it was too late: His kidneys were failing. On Friday, Oct. 5, he took his last breath.

By then, the search for the source of the anthrax moved into the 67,800-square-foot American Media offices where Mr. Stevens worked.

U.S. Postal Inspector Del Alvarez assured reporters there was no evidence to show anything was sent through the mail.

By Sunday, Oct. 7, investigators found anthrax spores on the keyboard of Mr. Stevens' computer, and in the nasal passages of Ernesto Blanco a 73-year-old mailroom worker. But having the spores doesn't mean a person will get the disease.

In fact, Mr. Blanco already was in a Miami hospital being treated for unrelated pneumonia, and officials said he was not at risk to develop anthrax.

That evening, Palm Beach County health officials shut down the American Media offices.

Over the next two days, more than 800 people - tabloid employees and recent visitors to the building - stood in the rain and heat, waiting for nose swabs and antibiotics.

On Oct. 10, a third employee, a secretary who handled the mail, was found to have anthrax spores in her nose.

By then, “powder panic,” as it's now being called, was spreading faster than the germ.

Hours after the news broke, a post office in neighboring Deerfield Beach was evacuated after a postal employee found a package with strange particles. It turned out to be dust.

People were calling talk-radio shows in the area, urging listeners to stay away from buffets and salad bars.

“This is not good,” said Boca Raton restaurant owner Chuck Naylor. “This is hurting us by 20, 25 percent.”

The next day, fire-rescue workers were called to 17 homes and businesses by people afraid they may have been exposed.

Last week, the theories of federal officials were shattered when it was revealed that anthrax spores were found in a mail slot of the Boca Raton postal distribution center.

No longer was it only confined to the tabloid headquarters, as Mr. Thompson had been adamantly claiming.

Dozens of people visited JFK Medical Center worried they might have anthrax or asking for antibiotics just in case, hospital officials said.

Buildings were temporarily vacated in Delray Beach and Weston, a Fort Lauderdale suburb 20 miles away as workers worried about suspicious mail.

A flap erupted between postal union officials in Boca Raton and supervisors in Washington over what to say about the finding. The union wanted to warn the public that other mail may have rubbed against the tainted letter, but supervisors insisted there were no health risks.

Then another jolt on Wednesday: Mr. Blanco, the tabloid mailroom worker who had been in a Miami hospital for what health officials said was pneumonia, actually had been suffering from anthrax all along.

June Curran of Deerfield Beach, Fla., listens at a town hall meeting at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The meeting last week was called to address concerns about anthrax. June Curran of Deerfield Beach, Fla., listens at a town hall meeting at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The meeting last week was called to address concerns about anthrax.
AP Enlarge

As more anthrax cases balloon across the nation, Boca Raton officials are trying to assure people that life will return to normal.

During a visit last week, Gov. Jeb Bush appeared at a press conference about two miles from the tabloid headquarters, urging people to remain calm.

But not everyone was pleased with the way officials had handled the crisis. On the same day as the governor's visit, Congressman Wexler visited the area and blasted federal officials for not keeping the community better informed.

He said some of the American Media employees and visitors have been forced to wait more than three days for test results.

And officials still appear to be promoting an atmosphere of silence. Several tabloid employees waiting for a second round of tests last week said they could not comment or they would be fired.

Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department, said she was asked by federal officials not to release information unless investigators approve.

Congressman Wexler said there's a difference between keeping information secret about terrorist investigations, and openly informing people about public health in a timely manner.

“Hundreds of people in Boca Raton were associated with the two buildings [American Media and postal sorting center],” said Mr. Wexler. “Their lives have been turned upside down.”

Before Mr. Stevens' death two weeks ago, such a scene would have been worthy of a science-fiction story from a supermarket tabloid. Now, it's taking place inside a tabloid.

For the last three weeks, health officials in white bio-suits and pink masks have been traipsing in and out of the four-story American Media building, hunting for spores.

Across the street, dozens of photographers line the roadway of Broken Sound Boulevard, waiting to shoot whatever moves through the trees that shroud the tabloid center.

Once home to the nation's largest tabloid newspapers, American Media is looking for a new headquarters for its papers: The National Enquirer, National Examiner, The Globe, and The Sun.

The events have cast a pall on a prestigious, 850-acre business park that already has claimed its place in history as the birthplace of the IBM personal computer. Now, it's the birthplace of the 21st century's new nemesis: bio-terrorism - a battle fought in an office park with thick Banyan trees and ponds.

The local chamber of commerce reports hotel bookings have dropped between 10 and 40 percent compared with the same period last year, and several conventions have been canceled at the ritzy Boca Raton Resort and Club.

“Our hospitality industry, like all over the country, was hit hard after Sept. 11, and we were just starting to crawl back when this anthrax scare started,” said the chamber's president, Michael Arts. “It has set us back.”

Some experts say the experience of dealing with the nation's first bio-terrorism attack in Boca Raton may help the government plan better in the future.

“It could have been better [coordinated], but I don't think it failed either,” said Dr. John Nutter, a University of Toledo professor and author of the book CIA Black Ops. “People are being tested, and an investigation is under way.

“Understand that this was an entirely new experience for all of those officials in the [Bush] administration.”

But he also pointed out that the federal government had been warned often by scholars and think tanks that the country was not prepared for a bio-chemical assault, “and it showed,” he said.

Now, after the initial shock, Boca Raton residents are trying to cope, but some are experiencing the same anxiety symptoms as those in New York City.

Dr. Ira Kaufman, a psychologist with a practice in both places, said clients in both cities are feeling edgy. “Some are having problems sleeping, or their faith has been shaken.”

In Boca Raton, “you don't know what's going to happen next,” he said. “You hear about what happened in New York, and you discover the terrorists lived among us. And then you find out about the anthrax. It doesn't let up.”

Many people are shaken, “because for so long, we felt so safe. And it's going to be a very long time before we feel that way again. A very long time.”



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