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RESPONSE TO TERROR

New Hunt for Letter at State Dept. Site

Search: Anthrax levels at the Virginia facility indicate that a worker's exposure is linked to an unfound piece of mail.

November 14, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The State Department is searching its mail system for an undiscovered anthrax-laced letter after testing at an off-site mail room backed up health officials' theory that another such letter exists, a department spokesman said Tuesday.

"We are now proceeding to look at all the mail that we have held up, frozen, sealed off, in mail rooms in this building, annexes and around the world," said spokesman Richard Boucher.

The anthrax attacks began in October with the death of Bob Stevens, 63, a tabloid photo editor in Florida. Since then three more victims have died and 13 others have contracted inhalation or skin anthrax. One of those victims was a State Department mail room employee--since released from the hospital--who contracted the more serious inhaled form.

Anthrax-tainted letters have been mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors have maintained that the State Department worker could not have contracted inhalation anthrax from handling mail that had merely come in contact with one of the known letters. Boucher said Tuesday that the amount and location of anthrax spores found in the facility where the sick employee worked "support the theory that there is a letter like the one sent to Sen. Daschle that has moved through our mail system."

Eight out of 55 samples taken last week at the State Department building in Sterling, Va., tested positive for anthrax, with traces found in three separate mail sorters. Six of the eight samples came from one mail sorter, Boucher said.

The State Department shut down its mail system Oct. 24 and alerted its embassies and consulates to freeze diplomatic pouches the following day. Since then anthrax contamination has been confirmed in a pouch sent to the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru.

Boucher said officials believe the contaminated letter did not reach its intended recipient and will be found somewhere in the "great quantities" of halted mail. The department will begin searching through undelivered mail in the Sterling building and all other facilities--including overseas posts--whose mail was processed there.

"We have to assume that we stopped it, we stuck it in our system where all the mail is sealed, and that we have to presume that we will be able to find whatever it is as we go through the mail in our system," he said.

A similar search is underway on Capitol Hill, where FBI agents last week began combing through tons of undelivered government mail looking for additional letters. The search began slowly, partly out of concern about exposing investigators to anthrax spores, officials said. The hope is that more discoveries might provide clues about the source of the anthrax and who sent it.

Conceding they have made little progress in the case, top FBI officials late last week released a profile of the likely perpetrator and appealed for help from the public.

The unopened State Department mail now appears to be the best bet for finding more clues. While traces of anthrax have been turning up almost daily in Washington mail rooms, officials have said that, except for the Sterling facility, the amounts have been consistent with cross-contamination from the Washington postal hub that processed the Daschle letter.

Meanwhile, the College Board said Tuesday that it is contacting as many as 7,800 high school students who took the SAT exam Oct. 13 to offer them a chance to retake the test or get a refund. The unscored tests apparently are being held in quarantined New Jersey postal facilities.

And Postal Service officials said Tuesday that they plan to irradiate hundreds of thousands of children's letters to Santa Claus to eliminate the threat of anthrax exposure. New York volunteers have opened the letters since the '20s and officials said they want the tradition to go on.

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