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Anthrax Side Show

It's high noon, and the TV-news folk are gathered across the street from the American Media, Inc. offices, which swarm with agents from the FBI and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in search of anthrax. More accurately the 40-or-so reporters, photographers, and cameramen assume agents are swarming inside the building, because no one from the media cadre has been allowed to cross the yellow police line to see firsthand the continuing anthrax investigation on this, the ninth day of October. Instead the news pack has converged on a swale across Broken Sound Boulevard, the four-lane parkway that curves in front of the headquarters of the company that produces The National Enquirer, Star Magazine, The Globe, and other grocery-store tabloids.

The excitement began October 5, when Robert Stevens, a 63-year-old photo editor for the company, died from anthrax. Investigators subsequently found traces of the toxic substance on Steven's keyboard, and seven more workers tested positive for the bacterium. Because anthrax has long been considered a potential agent for biological terrorism, worldwide media descended upon South Florida in light of the September 11 attacks.

The nation's anxiety level has shot up recently with reports of even more cases: anthrax-laced letters have been delivered to NBC Studios in New York City, a Microsoft office in Reno, and the office of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. In the first incident, an assistant to anchor Tom Brokaw became infected, as well as a New York City police detective and two health-department lab technicians. No one has tested positive at Microsoft, and the envelope that arrived in Daschle's office left investigators scrambling. On Monday the seven-month-old son of an ABC freelance news producer in New York City tested positive. A raft of reports to police about suspicious letters and powdery substances have proved unfounded but nevertheless led to evacuated buildings, grounded flights, and a worldwide media frenzy.

American Media is nestled in Boca Raton's 850-acre Arvida Park of Commerce, a tree-filled expanse of winding roads, ponds, businesses, and an 18-hole golf course. As a venue for pack media, the park has more advantages than drawbacks. Traffic is leisurely and light, so the media's swale-to-office view is clear. Nearby-office workers steadily stroll by on the sidewalk and provide fodder for the question of the day: "Do you feel scared?" Equally important, though, is a fortuitously landscaped mound on the swale favored by photographers and video cameramen alike. The rise offers the best vantage point on the makeshift FBI compound, and its five closely planted palms provide a break from the rain. Behind the grassy knoll are parked eight satellite trucks bearing the nomenclature of South Florida's biggest television stations, including affiliates for CBS, ABC, and NBC. A cacophony of generators robs the area of its usual calm. The reporters have been plagued with a morning drizzle and blustery wind that make consistent coiffures impossible. Despite their disheveled look, they consider the standups for noon broadcasts a welcome break from tedium.

As the noon updates end, a reporter from WPEC-TV (Channel 12) remains in front of the camera after being told via cell phone that more promotional segments, or teasers, are needed to flog the evening news. "Aack! How many teasers do I have to do?" he groans to the cameraman, who's not particularly sympathetic. Resigned to his fate, the reporter stiffens his shoulders and intones, "Coming up: We'll show you how the workers near the American Media offices are dealing with the anthrax scare."

The tactic used against such fear, at least today, seems to be black humor. Tom Slagle and Ken Cross, two employees at the nearby branch office of Siemens, which designs telephone electronics, wander upon the scene. Slagle, with a mop top of black-and-gray hair, peers at the American Media building. "I just want to see Scully walk out of there -- then I'm running," he jokes, comparing this bizarre anthrax case to an over-the-top X-Files episode. Slagle regards the mingling media horde. "Visually this is nothing," he says as he pokes a finger at the cordoned-off investigation site. "I mean, it's not like someone's going to run out of the basement with a dead cow yelling, "This is it! This is it!'" A reporter from WPBF-TV (Channel 25) overhears Slagle's musings and -- surprise! -- asks him if he's afraid of getting anthrax and would he be willing to be filmed for an interview. No, he says in response to the request with a roll of his eyes toward Cross. It's not the last time he'll be asked that during his lunch-break stroll through this circus.

A coworker of Slagle and Cross's spots the two loitering on the sidewalk. "What the hell are you doing here?" he roars in mock reproach, and the WPBF reporter lunges.

"Are you frightened about the anthrax they've found here?" she queries hopefully.

"Nah," the guy waggishly retorts, pointing to his nose. "I've got a head cold, so nothing can get in here anyway." He adds that he can't wait to see The National Enquirer's headlines on the anthrax panic. The reporter does not ask to interview him on camera.

The front perimeter of the American Media property is lined with young cypress trees, all now connected by a span of police tape. A Boca Raton police officer stands erect, hands behind his back, just in front of the site's main driveway. It's an overcast, gray day, but he wears sunglasses nonetheless. The Boca cops are in charge of security, and the department's hazardous-materials squad is decontaminating investigators as they enter and exit the building. Most of the activity in the compound is obscured by large trucks and trees, but men in white suits and green rubber boots can be seen sitting in folding chairs beneath a pavilion, as though relaxing at a Sunday-afternoon picnic. That macabre scene, however, is hours old and has lost its drama.

There's a ripple of expectation, however, when Lt. Frank Montilli of the Boca Raton Police Department steps over the tape line, takes a deep breath, and walks across the street into the media tide. Montilli has short-cropped black hair and a military demeanor yet seems genuinely interested in providing as much information as he can -- which turns out to be very little. "I do not know what's going on inside," Montilli says, words that become a mantra as reporter after reporter probes for details. Is the FBI sharing any information? "About safety matters, yes," Montilli answers. "About its ongoing investigation, no." Basically his men are keeping the curious out and the agents decontaminated. He identifies several of his department's vehicles and the mission of each.

"What about the all-black RV with black-tinted windows?" someone asks.

"Probably the FBI's," Montilli replies.

But does he know for sure, the questioner presses. "If it's mysterious and black, it's probably the FBI's," he responds to the delight of the press corps.

Reporters wander back to the swale where photographers from the Palm Beach Post and Sun-Sentinel have occupied Five Palms Knoll with telephoto lenses the size of howitzers. At long last there is a bit of activity among the white-suit set, albeit not breathtaking: Someone pushes a cart full of clothing detergents. The photographers snap furiously. "So now we know how to get rid of anthrax: Tide and Clorox," wisecracks one of them.

At about 2:30 p.m. a Sergeant Duggan with the Boca Raton Police strides determinedly to each of the satellite trucks, telling the occupants that the owner of the parking lot, which belongs to a nearby business, wants them out of there. "The guy's being pretty cool about it," advises Duggan. "You gotta give him some credit; it's been two days of this. He doesn't want them off in the next five minutes, but you're going to have to move them before six." Duggan has hit them where they live, because the next big batch of standups will occur at six. By the time Duggan reaches the last truck, several have already pulled up anchor and are jockeying for precious roadside parking 50 feet away. One TV reporter places orange pylons to save a space.

"I'd suggest you move as soon as possible," Duggan says to the guy in the last truck. "It looks like the Texas land rush right now."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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