Florida Anthrax Victims Express Surprise, Relief
MIAMI – Those who lived through the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings at a South Florida media company said yesterday’s news that a government researcher suspected in the attacks had killed himself came as a surprise and relief.
“I’m feeling a sense of relief that the madman who may have done this was finally identified and brought to some kind of justice,” said Joseph West, a former Sun editor at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla.
West used to sit across from Bob Stevens, a 63-year-old Sun photo editor whose death Oct. 5, 2001, marked the first death from the anthrax attacks that killed four others and hurt 17 from Florida to Connecticut.
“It was a very personal thing for me, as it was for all of us,” West said in an interview from his home in Lake Worth, Fla., where he writes Western novels. “All the memories are rushing back today. As far as the guy committing suicide, if he is indeed the guy behind this, then I guess the matter is closed.”
Biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins, 62, took his own life on Tuesday, soon after he learned that federal prosecutors planned to charge him in the anthrax investigation, the Los Angeles Times first reported yesterday. Ivins, whose name had not been disclosed publicly as a suspect, worked for the past 18 years at government laboratories in Fort Detrick, Md., and had helped analyze one of the anthrax samples mailed to a U.S. senator’s office.
“This all came out of left field, just a total surprise,” said Jim McCandlish, who was a full-time AMI employee in 2001 and now freelances for Star and Globe. “It’s always been an ongoing mystery for us.”
Now that the mystery is somewhat solved, Ernesto Blanco said he finally feels more secure.
Blanco inhaled anthrax while working in the mailroom at American Media seven years ago. He spent 23 days at a Miami hospital’s intensive care unit thinking he “was going to die,” he said in a 2006 interview with The Miami Herald.
But Blanco recovered and returned to work four months later. Now 80, Blanco is still working and says he is grateful that the often- criticized federal investigation of the attacks “never stopped.”
“They’ve put a lot of hours into finding out who sent those letters. Sooner or later, they will catch the people involved. That makes me feel secure,” Blanco said yesterday from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he moved from North Miami.
Echoing Blanco’s statement of security, former Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams said “this long nightmare is over” for his city.
“Residents are relieved that if this person is the likely perpetrator, he’s no longer at large,” Abrams said. Authorities were investigating why Ivins released the anthrax. The Department of Justice has not yet decided whether to close the inquiry, officials said, meaning it is unclear whether Ivins acted alone. That decision is expected within days.
In June, the federal government settled a lawsuit with Steven Hatfill, another scientist who worked at Fort Detrick, who was singled out as a “person of interest” by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. The settlement exonerated Hatfill and paid him $5.82 million.
Attempts yesterday to reach Maureen Stevens, the widow of Bob Stevens, were unsuccessful.
Her attorney, Richard Schuler, said the recent turn of events has legitimized the case his client had been making against federal officials.
In December 2003, Maureen Stevens filed two lawsuits – against the federal government and Battelle Memorial Institute, a private lab that works with the government.
The lawsuit against the government claims that security lapses at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick brought Bob Stevens in contact with anthrax.
Originally published by McClatchy Newspapers.
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