TRENTON, N.J. - Federal investigators descended on suburban Ewing Township yesterday, tracking a postal carrier's route where at least one of the anthrax-tainted letters that have rattled the nation in recent weeks might have been mailed.
FBI agents went door to door, asking residents and workers at businesses about suspicious activity. Investigators removed some mailboxes. Two local postal facilities were closed, and nearly 1,000 employees were advised to take antibiotics.
"It's surreal," said Ewing Township Mayor Al Bridges as his town filled up with television camera crews and hundreds of investigators. "You think about these things happening in other places. ... I can't believe this quiet little peaceful town is the center of all this."
Investigators were drawn to the carrier's route after it was announced Thursday that she had developed an anthrax skin infection. Yesterday, another postal employee, a mail sorter at a regional sorting facility in Hamilton Township, was reported to have developed a similar infection, as did a newsroom staffer at the New York Post's offices in Manhattan.
The victims were on antibiotics and are recovering.
In Washington, authorities said close examination of the anthrax bacteria mailed to offices in Florida, New York and Washington found that the samples were "indistinguishable," suggesting that the attacks were related.
"It does appear that it may have been from the same - the same batch," Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told reporters at a White House briefing. "But it may have been distributed to different individuals to infect and to send into different communities."
Ridge said the FBI had been able to identify the New Jersey mailbox where anthrax-tainted letters had been sent. But later, FBI special agent Linda Vizi said she knew nothing about it.
Postal officials said the infected carrier's mail route serves about 570 households and businesses, including a Department of Transportation office, a country club and a school for the deaf.
She worked out of the small West Trenton post office in Ewing Township, one of 46 central New Jersey stations that feed mail to the regional distribution facility in Hamilton, where the anthrax-contaminated letters mailed to NBC and to the U.S. Senate were postmarked "Trenton" on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9.
Letter carrier Jim Bittenbender said his colleague did not pick up mail from public boxes, suggesting that any outgoing mail she received would likely have come from addresses on her route, or from someone who handed it to her personally. "That would obviously be among the many avenues we would pursue," said Sandra Carroll, an FBI spokeswoman in Newark.
A 35-year-old man who works at a machine that sorts oversized mail at the Hamilton plant became yesterday the second postal worker in the Trenton area reported to have an anthrax infection. The Levittown, Pa., resident was hospitalized and taking antibiotics to treat an anthrax lesion on his neck.
"It isn't life-threatening in any way," said Richard McGarvey, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Authorities suspect that a third postal employee is also infected.
State and federal health officials urged all of the nearly 1,000 people who work at the Hamilton facility and the West Trenton post office to take antibiotics until epidemiologists can determine the likelihood that they were exposed to the bacteria.
Both buildings were closed while investigators and health officials examined them for clues and traces of anthrax. Mail processing was shifted to other centers.
Farther north in New Jersey, Carroll said the FBI will run anthrax tests on items removed last month from the apartment of two Jersey City men detained by federal authorities after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The FBI was alerted after Wall Street Journal reporters visited the unlocked apartment of Mohammed Jaweed Azmath and Ayub Ali Khan and found a 1995 article on sarin nerve gas and a magazine article on the National Center for Infectious Diseases.
Azmath and Khan have been detained since they were picked up in Texas on an Amtrak train the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. They were alleged to be carrying about $5,000 and box-cutting knives similar to those used by the hijackers.
The nation's eighth confirmed anthrax case turned up yesterday at the New York Post offices in Manhattan. Company officials said Johanna Huden, 30, an assistant to editorial page editor Bob McManus, was recovering from an anthrax skin infection and is back at work.
"The employee is being treated and is doing well," city health officials said in a memo distributed to Post workers.
Her first symptoms appeared Sept. 22 as a finger blister. Because the typical incubation period for the disease had since passed, the memo said "it is unlikely" that anyone else would get sick.
The New York Post case follows a pattern that has emerged from anthrax incidents at four other newspaper and broadcast newsrooms in Boca Raton, Fla., and in New York.
At the Post, NBC, ABC, CBS in New York, and at the Florida tabloid publisher American Media Inc., a total of five employees and one employee's baby son developed symptoms of inhaled or cutaneous (skin) anthrax within the last eight days of September.
Contaminated mail is implicated in all five cases. The only tainted letter recovered in those cases was the one sent to NBC. It was postmarked at the Trenton center Sept. 18.
The anthrax attack on the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was launched three weeks after the New York attacks, in a letter very similar to the NBC letter, and postmarked at the same Trenton facility Oct. 9.
All seven of the surviving anthrax victims have taken antibiotics, and are said to be recovering. At least 37 other people - media and Senate office workers, lab technicians and a Capitol police officer - have tested positive for exposure to the bacteria. They, too are taking antibiotics to protect them from infection.
The number of Senate employees who have tested positive for anthrax exposure fell yesterday from 31 to 28 after follow-up tests revealed several "false positives" from the preliminary screening.
In Florida, a second round of tests at two postal facilities that handled AMI's mail have confirmed the presence of anthrax spores. The two buildings were cleaned overnight and reopened yesterday. No employees were considered to be at risk.
Testing to confirm the similarities between the Washington anthrax sample and the Florida and New York samples is continuing, Ridge said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has so far found that the anthrax samples from New York and Florida match each other on 30 different criteria, he said. Tests to weigh the similarities of the Washington sample were incomplete.
Trying to allay anxieties sparked by earlier reports to the contrary, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said tests on the anthrax samples from AMI, NBC and Daschle's office indicate the bacteria was not produced in a "weaponized" form.
After days of testing, the CDC has said that a letter sent from Malaysia to a Microsoft Corp. office in Reno, Nev., had tested negative for anthrax, according to Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn.
Preliminary tests have turned up anthrax in at least two places overseas.
The New York Times said yesterday that a test by Brazilian authorities found "bacteria or spores consistent with anthrax" in a letter to the newspaper's bureau in Rio de Janeiro. The letter was mailed Oct. 5 from New York and received Oct. 16. It had no return address.
Four employees are taking antibiotics as a precaution, the Times said. Brazil's Health Ministry said it was awaiting test results on the unopened letter.
And in Kenya, a doctor and his family were being treated with antibiotics after they opened a letter posted from Atlanta, Ga., three days before the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. A powder in the letter tested positive for anthrax.
Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman and wire reports contributed to this article.
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