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Officials look for tie between terrorists, anthrax

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Federal officials said Tuesday their investigation into a deadly anthrax infection in Florida includes a closer look at forensic evidence gathered in the weeks since the September 11 terrorist attacks, especially items linked to the suspected hijackers themselves.

Items the suspected hijackers left behind -- luggage, documents, cars -- are getting probed for any traces of anthrax, sources in Washington told CNN.

Officials increasingly think that the presence of anthrax in American Media Inc., a Florida tabloid publishing house, was not an act of nature.

"The evidence is stacking up that indicates it is not environmental," said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

Get more information on anthrax  from the CDC
The Florida Department of Health anthrax hotline: 1-800-342-3557.  

The bacteria is blamed for the death of a photo editor at the supermarket tabloid The Sun. A mailroom employee in the same building has also tested positive for exposure to anthrax, but is not exhibiting symptoms of the disease. State and federal officials said both men were affected by the same strain of the bacteria.

"We've been able to narrow down that the inhalation anthrax comes from that building, and it has been conclusively proven that it is the same in both individuals," said Tommy Thompson, the secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A law enforcement source told CNN the FBI has no suspect and has developed no information on how anthrax got in the building or how the two men were exposed to it.

Health officials said about 770 people who either worked or spent time in the building have been tested, and there were no indications that anyone else was exposed to anthrax. It could be weeks before test results on employees are known, they said.

Employees of American Media, based in Delray Beach, Florida, worked in temporary locations Tuesday as law enforcement and health officials scoured their building for evidence and for further traces of the bacteria. AMI's building, which also includes offices of the National Enquirer and The Globe, remained sealed.

Law enforcement sources said investigators were unable to match The Sun strain of anthrax with any on record -- the closest matches were a strain of anthrax from a goat and a laboratory-manufactured strain, they said.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, told CNN that Koplan and Thompson had briefed the senator Monday, telling him "the chance this happened without some human intervention was zero."

The FBI was looking into the possibility that anthrax could have gotten into the building by mail, but sources in Washington said they had no letter in their possession with traces of anthrax. Sources said investigators were also checking into former and current employees who may have had access to the building.

Local health officials said there is no need for panic.

"I'm asking the people of Florida to remain calm," Florida Health Secretary Dr. John Agwunobi told CNN.

"All indications, all evidence that we have right now indicates that the only cases of anthrax are in the two individuals who worked in that building and a keyboard that was contaminated in that building. At this point in our investigation, there is nothing outside of the building that leads us to believe that anyone else is at risk. However, our investigation is ongoing."

Robert Stevens, 63, died Friday of inhalation of anthrax. Traces of anthrax were found in his work station at The Sun, according to both Agwunobi and AMI's chief executive, David Pecker.

Members of Stevens' family have been taken off antibiotics after tests showed no trace of anthrax in the family's home, said Dr. Jean Malecki, director of the Palm Beach County Health Department.

Officials said that tests performed on Ernesto Blanco, 73, who worked in AMI's Florida office mailroom, found that he had been exposed to the bacteria, but was exhibiting no symptoms.

He was hospitalized last week in Miami with pneumonia, but health officials said his illness is unrelated to the anthrax exposure.

Meanwhile, doctors in northern Virginia said that preliminary tests had found no anthrax in a man who presented himself to a hospital last night saying he had connections with AMI.

Anthrax, which in nature is spread through infected animals and whose spores can live in the soil for years, is considered a potential agent for use in biological warfare. It can be contracted through cuts in the skin or eating infected meat, but its deadliest form occurs when bacteria are inhaled. Fears about its possible use by terrorists have been increasing since the September 11 attacks.

-- CNN correspondents Mark Potter and Kelli Arena contributed to this report.


• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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