Suspicious letters to NBC, N.Y. Times sent from St. Petersburg, authorities say.
By DAVID BALLINGRUD, MIKE BRASSFIELD and WES ALLISON
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 2001
A broadening national bioterrorism investigation turned toward St. Petersburg late Friday after NBC officials disclosed that a New York employee has contracted anthrax.
Three letters containing a powdery white substance -- mailed to NBC, the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times -- bear St. Petersburg postmarks.
Federal law enforcement officials said late Friday that all three letters postmarked St. Petersburg tested negatively for anthrax.
Late Friday, postal officials converged at the main post office in St. Petersburg, saying they were working with the FBI and others in the early stages of an investigation. They would not address specifics of the investigation or what inspectors could do to pinpoint the origin of the letters.
"The Postal Service does not have the means to track an individual letter to its source," said Linda Walker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Tampa. Despite repeated government assurances Friday that investigators have found no definite link between the anthrax incidents and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the letters fueled growing concerns about a possible biological attack.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Friday there may be links between U.S. anthrax cases and Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think the only responsible thing for us to do is proceed on the basis that it could be linked," Cheney told Jim Lehrer of PBS. He said the United States has evidence that bin Laden's terrorists were trained in spreading chemical and biological toxins.
In developments Friday:
An assistant to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw contracted the skin-based form of anthrax after opening a "threatening" letter to her boss.
Officials quickly said there was no known link to either the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the more serious inhaled form of anthrax that killed a supermarket tabloid editor in Florida last week. The 38-year-old NBC employee was being treated with antibiotics and is expected to recover. The letter was postmarked in St. Petersburg on Sept. 20 and opened Sept. 25, authorities said.
Within hours, another scare broke out at the New York Times' 43rd Street headquarters. Staff writer Judith Miller, the author of a recently released book on bioterrorism, received an envelope containing a powdery substance that smelled like talcum powder, said Kathy Park, a spokeswoman for the paper. Two floors of employees were evacuated but later returned to their desks.
FBI officials confirmed late Friday that the letters the NBC employee and Miller received were "business-type" letters, postmarked in St. Petersburg, and contained a similar powdery substance. Neither had a return address.
In Columbus, Ohio, three employees of the Columbus Dispatch remained in quarantine late Friday after one of them opened a Halloween card and found a powdery substance. Steve Berry, an assistant features editor, said the card arrived in the mail with a Dayton postmark but no return address. The substance was taken to the Ohio Department of Health, where officials said a preliminary report was expected late Friday.
Fox News Channel reported receiving a questionable envelope with a powdery substance and all mailroom employees were being tested for anthrax. The woman who received the envelope at Fox has tested negative for anthrax.
In Nevada, a letter containing pornographic material that was sent from Malaysia to a Microsoft office in Reno was first reported as testing positive for anthrax, but state officials said later that was in error.
New organizations including CNN, the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News also stopped accepting outside mail, and the Miami Herald continued to provide latex gloves to concerned employees, as it has since the anthrax fatality at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton.
The New York offices of Newsweek magazine, the Associated Press, ABC and CBS stopped mail deliveries to staff as a precaution.
In a briefing at the Pentagon, a senior defense official confirmed that al-Qaida, bin Laden's global network, is thought to have crude facilities in Afghanistan where it could produce chemical or biological weapons. If al-Qaida has biological warfare agents, they could include anthrax, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, paramedics were called to the mail processing center in St. Petersburg to check a few workers who were complaining of headaches or other symptoms.
The workers feared that they might have been exposed to something a couple of days earlier, according to paramedics at the scene.
A hazardous materials team also was called to the mail center to test the plant for any signs of contamination.
"We anticipate getting a clean bill of health," said Walker, of the postal inspection service.
Earlier in the day, federal authorities told the St. Petersburg Police Department that they were investigating multiple mailed envelopes that had St. Petersburg postmarks.
St. Petersburg police Chief Mack Vines confirmed reports that one of the suspicious envelopes was mailed to NBC and one to the New York Times, but would not comment on whether other such envelopes had been found.
Detectives with the St. Petersburg Police Department's intelligence unit came to Vines' office shortly after 5 p.m. to inform him of the development.
Vines said St. Petersburg detectives were working on the case with FBI, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Manhattan homicide squad of the New York Police Department.
"We're on top of the issue. We're working with the bureau to determine if we can identity any type of situation relating to the postmark," Vines said Friday night. "We're just trying to develop any kind of information that would tie in to something like that."
Vines said he could not say anything else about the ongoing investigation.
"We're working diligently on it," Vines said. "We'll see if we can trace some of these things back. That's the issue."
"The only thing we know for sure is that they (the letters) were postmarked in St. Petersburg," said Gary Sawtelle, Tampa postal spokesman.
"Until we examine them, there's no way to break down where they were mailed from," he said.
The St. Petersburg postmark is given to letters collected from mid Pinellas County to south St. Petersburg, he said. He could not immediately be more specific.
St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler opened his letter at his desk Tuesday. As he did so, a white powdery substance, resembling sugar or salt, spilled out.
Troxler stopped opening the letter. Authorities were called to the newspaper's offices in downtown St. Petersburg. Police put the envelope in an airtight container and drove it to a state health lab in Tampa for analysis. Firefighters covered Troxler's desk with a plastic sheet and yellow emergency-scene tape reading "caution."
Health officials found no signs of anthrax or bacteria in the powder. The envelope and a letter inside also tested negative.
The letter had no return address and was postmarked St. Petersburg. It bears a code 337, then a space, then 1.
Anything that is mailed in Seminole, Largo, Bay Pines, Gulfport, Pinellas Park or any St. Petersburg neighborhood goes through the main post office on First Avenue N and is stamped with a 337.
The cryptic letter misspelled Troxler's name and had little punctuation. It said:
"Howard Toxler ... 1st case of disease now blow away this dust so you see how the real thing flys. Oklahoma-Ryder Truck! Skyway bridge-18 wheels."
Postmaster General John Potter told CNN that the Postal Service investigates more than 80 threats involving anthrax every year.
"Until these incidents, we have never had anthrax delivered through the mail," Potter said.
He noted that the Postal Service delivers more than 208-billion pieces of mail every year.
Asked if there were ways to determine a letter's origin more precisely than just the St. Petersburg postmark, Potter said, "I'm going to leave that up to law enforcement."
This year, the postal service received about 60 threats or hoaxes, which included anthrax, hoof and mouth disease, the Klingerman virus hoax and others. Nationwide, in the past two years, authorities have received about 178 anthrax threats at courthouses, reproductive health service providers, churches, schools, and post offices.
Bioterrorism experts said anthrax can be grown in large batches, using routine commercial laboratory equipment. When the bacteria are dried and form tiny protective spores, anthrax turns into a white or beige powder.
To infect an entire city, large amounts would have to be spread by airplane or industrial sprayer after the spores are mixed with an inert chemical to keep them suspended in air. Small amounts capable of infecting a few people can be sprinkled in an envelope.
Microbiologists caution it is not easy or cheap to make effective biological weapons. Pranksters who want to spread fear rather than disease might use baby powder, cornstarch or another benign look-alike.
Anthrax spores measure between 1 and 5 microns in size -- too small to see with the naked eye. Even trained biologists need the right equipment to distinguish an infectious agent from ordinary materials, so most suspicious envelopes should be investigated.