Ernesto Blanco started feeling sick on Sept. 28, telling his family that he had never been so tired in his life. So the usually vigorous Blanco, 73, a mail supervisor at American Media Inc., the publisher of such supermarket tabloids as the National Enquirer and The Sun, went to the hospital near his home in Miami. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. When word got out that one of his coworkers, Robert Stevens, 63, a photo editor at The Sun, was suffering from anthrax (which would kill him on Oct. 5), Blanco refused to believe that anthrax was intentionally placed in the building. Three days later his own doctors informed him that anthrax spores had been found in his nasal passages—and with that his denial melted. Says his stepdaughter Maria Orth, 37: "He's really freaked out about it."
He was not, it is safe to say, the only one. By Monday, Oct. 8, the FBI and officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had sealed off the offices of AMI in Boca Raton, Fla. Treating the case as a criminal investigation, authorities brought in a huge black bus with an array of electronic equipment apparently used to detect evidence of a biological attack. At press time on Oct. 9, it was still unclear how the two men had been exposed to anthrax, which cannot be spread easily or be passed from person to person, and whether the case was in any way connected to the latest terrorist threat from Osama bin Laden. But the betting was that it was a deliberate incident. Florida's Sen. Bob Graham said he had been told by the head of the CDC that "human intervention" would have been needed to spread the spores in the building.
After a visit with his daughter Casey, 21, in North Carolina, Stevens started feeling ill on Sept. 30. He returned to his home in Lantana, Fla., and was taken by his wife, Maureen, 58, to the hospital on Oct. 2 with fever and vomiting. There, he was diagnosed with pulmonary anthrax, a form of the disease so rare that it has only been seen 18 times in this country in the last 100 years (see box below). Investigators later found traces of anthrax spores on Stevens's keyboard at work, suggesting he had touched the bacteria.
It may or may not have been a coincidence that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers spent a good deal of time in nearby Delray Beach, Fla., and that they inquired about crop-dusting planes, which possibly they hoped to use in a bioterrorist attack. Whatever the case, the appearance of anthrax sent out ripples of anxiety. According to one early report, the source of the spores could have been a fan letter the company received that contained a white powder, but an editor at AMI denied that account. Because the incubation period for anthrax can be 60 days, authorities wanted to test the more than 700 people who had visited the AMI building since Aug. 1. In the days after Stevens's diagnosis, hundreds of staffers lined up for nasal swabs and a preventative round of antibiotics while officials tried to keep everyone calm. "This is not a public health threat to Palm Beach County in general," said Warren Newell, the county's board of commissioners.
So far, Blanco appears to be making a steady recovery thanks to aggressive treatment with antibiotics. Yet for him and his family, the sense of personal safety will never be the same. Says stepdaughter Orth: "You have a building with so much access, anything could happen."
Michael Cohen in Boca Raton, Linda Trischitta in Miami and Michaele Ballard in Charlotte
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