Fla. man dies of anthrax; officials seek its source

Associated Press

LANTANA, Fla. - A 63-year-old Florida man died of the inhaled form of anthrax yesterday in the first such death in the United States in 25 years.

Health officials said there is no evidence he was the victim of a terrorist attack, but the FBI and CDC are investigating.

Bob Stevens, a photo editor at the supermarket tabloid The Sun, died at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis after antibiotics failed to stop the infection, Dr. Jean Malecki said.

Federal and state health investigators have emphasized that the disease is not contagious and that no other cases have been reported.

But they are trying to reconstruct Stevens' movements and track down the source of the disease.

Anthrax has been developed by some countries as a possible biological weapon, and the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 have put many people on edge about the threat.

But anthrax can also be contracted naturally, often from farm animals or soil.

Stevens was described as an avid outdoorsman.

FBI, CDC and state investigators sealed off Stevens' house in Lantana and searched it for about two hours yesterday.

When they left, they removed the yellow crime-scene tape. They were also searching his workplace.

Some in Lantana have been concerned because Mohamed Atta, believed to be one of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center, had rented planes at a flight school at Palm Beach County Park Airport, according to the school's owner.

Stevens' home is within a mile of the airport.

Also, Atta and other Middle Eastern men are believed to have visited an airfield in Belle Glade, about 40 miles from Lantana, and asked a lot of questions about crop-dusters.

In addition, some of the suspected hijackers had lived at an apartment complex in Boynton Beach, about 10 miles from Lantana.

"I'm starting to get a little scared," said Louis Selitti Jr., 33, who lives across the street from Stevens. "To get something in our lungs, you have to breathe it in. Hopefully it wasn't around here."

The most recent previous U.S. case of anthrax was earlier this year in Texas. But that was the more common skin form, not the inhaled type of anthrax, an especially lethal and rare form in which the disease settles in the lungs.

During the 20th century, only 18 cases of inhaled anthrax were reported in the United States, the most recent in 1976. That, too, was deadly.

"There's no need for people to fear they are at risk," CDC Director Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan said yesterday. But he said a release of the germ by terrorists is on the list of possibilities under investigation.

Eric Croddy, a bioterrorism expert at California's Monterey Institute, said that everything so far leads him to believe the government is right, that Stevens caught the disease naturally and that it is an isolated case. "He's an unfortunate, unlucky fellow," Croddy said.

Anthrax causes pneumonia, and patients are treated with antibiotics. There is also a vaccine to prevent the spread of the disease, but it is available only to the military now.

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