Car book caught in anthrax scare

The threat of anthrax hit close to home for several people with ties to the automotive industry over the past few days.

The headquarters of American Media Inc., which owns AMI Auto World, was quarantined late Sunday after health officials detected that a mailroom employee was exposed to but not infected by the anthrax virus. An infected photo editor at the company died Friday.

American Media, in Boca Raton, Fla., publishes supermarket tabloids, including the National Enquirer and Star. Speculation abounds that the company may have been a terrorist target and that the virus was delivered in an envelope or through air ducts.

Auto World, a monthly magazine for vehicle enthusiasts, moved from Mississippi into American Media's headquarters building less than two months ago.

"No one targeted Auto World; they didn't even know we're in the building," said Terry Jackson, who became editor in chief of the magazine Sept. 4. "I've contacted everyone who came (to Auto World) in the building — people who delivered cars, job applicants — no one tested positive for the anthrax virus." Jackson, who was tested Monday, has three employees in the building.

Bill Ussery, southeastern public affairs manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., spent an hour in American Media's building on Thursday, Oct. 4. He said he plans to be tested for anthrax.

Press vehicles trapped

Not only was American Media's building quarantined, but also the FBI deemed the parking lot and underground garage part of a crime scene. Auto World had borrowed several vehicles from automakers' press fleets, which now are part of that crime scene.

Investigators found the virus on the computer keyboard of the photo editor who died, but Jackson said that's not because investigators think the vehicles could host the anthrax virus.

"No one has raised the issue of any problem with the cars," he said. "The virus can't be spread that way. It would get on someone's hands, then they would rub their nose. I'm not an expert, but that's the way it probably was passed."

Some of the vehicles that Auto World borrowed are for the magazine's "Best Of" issue, which is scheduled to appear on newsstands Dec. 1. Two "Best Of" vehicles are trapped in American Media's parking lot: a Honda Odyssey and a Chevrolet Silverado.

Auto World also recently borrowed vehicles for test drives, including a Jaguar XK convertible, provided by Prestige Auto Specialists Inc. in Coconut Creek, Fla. The Jaguar remains at the American Media building.

"Three of my employees who were in the building had to get checked for anthrax in the nose and are taking antibiotics for 60 days," said Marcello Serrato, president of Prestige. Test results can take several days, he said.

Serrato said he expects to know by Friday when the XK will be returned and is not concerned that the virus made its way to the vehicle.

Cautious about mail

Meanwhile, Auto World employees are trying to work from their homes. The next issue, which will be 100 pages, is scheduled to be published by the end of this month.

When the staff is allowed back in its building, it will try to conduct business as usual but will be cautious about opening mail, Jackson said.

"When I open letters that aren't from people or companies I know," he said, "a certain amount of trepidation will go through my mind."

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