Boca Raton, Fla. — The FBI is investigating the possibility that anthrax bacteria found in two Florida men is a result of terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday.
The bacteria killed one of the men Friday. It has since been detected in the nose of a co-worker and on a computer keyboard in the newspaper office where both men worked, health officials said.
"We regard this as an investigation that could become a clear criminal investigation," Ashcroft said during a news conference in Washington. "We don't have enough information to know whether this could be related to terrorism or not."
He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta was providing expertise, but Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan confirmed that the FBI is "in control of the investigation."
Bob Stevens, 63, a photo editor at the supermarket tabloid The Sun, died Friday of inhalation anthrax, an extremely rare and lethal form of the disease. The last such death in the United States was in 1976.
On Monday, officials said a co-worker of Stevens, whose name was not immediately released, had anthrax bacteria in his nasal passages. Relatively large anthrax spores that lodge in the upper respiratory tract are less dangerous than smaller spores that get into the lungs.
The co-worker was in stable condition Monday at an unidentified Miami-Dade County hospital, according to health officials. He had been tested for anthrax because he happened to be in a hospital for an unrelated illness.
The man has not been diagnosed with the disease, and Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the CDC in Atlanta, said authorities may never know whether he actually had anthrax because antibiotics may have killed it before it was detected.
David Pecker, chief executive of the tabloid's publisher, American Media Inc., said the man worked in the mailroom.
The FBI sealed off the office building housing The Sun and was combing it for clues. All 300 employees who work in the building were asked to come to a clinic so they could be tested for the bacteria. CDC officials said nasal swabs would be taken, and antibiotics provided.
A sample of anthrax was taken from a computer keyboard at the Sun, said Dr. John Agwunobi, the state's secretary of health. It was not immediately whose keyboard was involved.
Anthrax cannot be spread from person to person. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have raised fears of biological warfare and there is particular concern about the origin of the anthrax here.
Stevens lived about a mile from an air strip where suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta rented planes, said Marian Smith, owner of the flight school, said Monday. Several suspected hijackers also visited and asked questions at a crop-dusting business in Belle Glade, 40 miles from Stevens' home in Lantana.
Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson had called Stevens' illness "an isolated case." But on Monday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would not rule out terrorism as a possible explanation.
"There is no evidence to suggest anything yet and that's why the FBI is investigating," Fleischer said.
Michael Kahane, vice president and general counsel of American Media, said the company closed its Boca Raton building at the request of state health officials.
"Obviously, our first concern is the health and well-being of our employees and their families," he said.
Only 18 cases of anthrax contracted through inhalation in the United States were documented in the 20th century, the most recent in 1976 in California. More common is a less serious form of anthrax contracted through the skin.
Anthrax can be contracted from farm animals or soil, though the bacterium is not normally found among wildlife or livestock in Florida. Stevens was described as an avid outdoorsman and gardener.
The anthrax bacterium normally has an incubation period of up to seven days, but could take up to 60 days to develop.
County medical examiners are looking over any unexplained deaths, but have not found any cases connected to anthrax.
The largest experience with inhalation anthrax was in Russia in 1979, when anthrax spores were accidentally released from a military biology facility. Seventy-nine cases of anthrax were reported, and 68 people died.
An injectable anthrax vaccine has been around since the 1970s, and the U.S. military has required anthrax vaccinations for service personnel since the Persian Gulf War.