Thursday, April 09, 2015
Friday October 12 7:49 PM ET
October 12, 2001, AP, Anthrax Case Reported at NBC News, by Larry McShane, Associated Press Writer, Screen Capture,
NEW YORK (AP) - An assistant to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw contracted the skin form of anthrax after opening a "threatening" letter to her boss that contained a suspicious powder, authorities and the network said Friday.
Officials quickly said there was no known link to either the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the far 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 Sept. 20 and opened Sept. 25, authorities said.
A federal criminal investigation was launched to find the source of the anthrax, and health officials scrambled to retest the powder to see if contained the germ. Initial tests had been negative, but authorities said the sample was so small they were reluctant to interpret the results.
The letter to NBC and a letter containing an unknown powder received Friday by The New York Times both were postmarked from St. Petersburg, Fla., said Barry Mawn, head of the FBI office in New York. The Times' letter was postmarked Oct. 5.
There was some similarity in the handwriting on both letters, Mawn said, declining to discuss the contents. Both were anonymous letters with no return address.
The case sent a chill through a city still reeling from the World Trade Center disaster. Emergency rooms reported a higher number of patients asking for anthrax tests or requesting antibiotics. News organizations across the country shored up mailroom security. And the postmaster general advised everyone to watch for suspicious letters and packages.
There have been anthrax scares from Connecticut to Nevada over the past week but no known cases except in Florida and New York.
President Bush said the government was doing all it could to protect the public.
"The American people need to go about their lives. We cannot let terrorists lock our country down," Bush said, addressing the anthrax case at a White House event celebrating Hispanic heritage. "They will not take this country down."
The anthrax case - the nation's fourth in a week - was reported early Friday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after tests were completed on a skin sample from the victim. Further tests on the envelope and its contents were under way.
"The most likely explanation is it was linked to this particular letter," said Dr. Steven Ostroff of the CDC. "It makes sense."
The CDC said it was possible the NBC employee was contaminated by something other than the envelope. NBC News reported that the envelope also contained a "threatening" letter.
NBC employees were evacuated from part of the 70-story GE Building in Rockefeller Center, which is home to Brokaw's "Nightly News," "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."
"Living in New York and working in this building for this company, you're already on edge," said Brian Rolapp, 29, a business development manager for NBC. "I think everyone is a little startled that it's this close to home."
The NBC employee who tested positive was a Brokaw assistant, NBC officials said on condition of anonymity. One official said that Brokaw, who has appeared on NBC's evening newscasts for the last 18 years, was being tested for anthrax.
The "Nightly News" was broadcast Friday from the ground-floor "Today" show studios, instead of its usual third-floor home.
At the end of the broadcast, Brokaw thanked viewers for their concern and then spoke of his colleague.
"She has been - as she always is - a rock. She's been an inspiration to us all," he said. "But this is so unfair and so outrageous and so maddening, it's beyond my ability to express it in socially acceptable terms. So we'll just reserve our thoughts and our prayers for our friend and her family."
A few blocks away, two floors of The New York Times building were cleared after Judith Miller, a reporter who co-wrote a recent best seller on bioterrorism, opened a letter containing a powdery substance a spokeswoman said smelled like talcum powder.
Executive Editor Howell Raines said initial tests indicated that the powder did not pose any immediate problem. Air tests for radioactive and chemical substances were negative.
The Associated Press, located across the street from NBC, temporarily closed its mailroom. Other media organizations modified mail security procedures.
The skin and inhaled forms of anthrax are caused by the same bacterium. The only difference is whether the microscopic spores enter the skin through a cut or are inhaled into the lungs. It takes more than 8,000 spores to cause the inhalation form of anthrax. Neither form can be spread directly from person to person.
When caught through the skin, anthrax is a much less serious disease. The first symptoms are reddish-black sores on the skin. If the disease is caught at that point and treated with antibiotics, it is easily cured. Even without treatment, cutaneous anthrax is fatal in only one case out of 20.
Dr. Scott Lillibridge, the bioterrorism chief for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, said the NBC employee is believed to have handled the envelope on Sept. 25. Three days later, she noticed a dark-colored lesion, Lillibridge said, and on Oct. 1 began taking the antibiotic Cipro for another infection.
When the lesion started developing characteristics of anthrax, "a very alert and astute clinician" ordered skin tests, CDC Deputy Director David Fleming said. The results came back Friday.
NBC said it had immediately contacted the FBI, the CDC and the New York Department of Health after the envelope arrived.
Although the complaint was received the day the letter was opened, the FBI didn't respond until a day later, Mawn said. Tests were delayed by two or three days because FBI agents were unable to speak with Brokaw's assistant, he said.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said all network employees exposed to the powder will be tested for anthrax and treated with Cipro.
"People should not overreact to this," Giuliani said. "Much of this is being done to allay people's fears."
Giuliani said there appeared to be no connection between the two New York letters and an FBI warning issued Thursday about additional terrorist action at home or abroad.
Last Friday, a photo editor for The Sun supermarket tabloid in Boca Raton, Fla., died of the more serious inhaled form of anthrax. The American Media building where Bob Stevens, 63, worked was sealed off after anthrax was found on his keyboard.
Traces of anthrax were later found in the mailroom. Two other employees turned out to have anthrax in their nasal passages, but neither has developed the disease. Both are taking antibiotics, and one has returned to work.
In Florida, FBI agent Hector Pesquera said test results of 965 people who were in the building recently found no new infections. Pesquera said investigators are still trying to determine how the anthrax got into the building.