Confirming a clear link between the terrorists targeting America and the South Florida company hit by anthrax cases, the FBI said Sunday that the Sun tabloid editor's wife rented a Delray Beach apartment to two of the hijackers.
The Sun is part of the American Media Inc. tabloid chain, and it employed photo editor Bob Stevens, who died this month from inhalation anthrax. Two other AMI employees were exposed, and five more are being retested to confirm positive blood test results.
Sun editor Michael Irish's wife, Gloria, rented unit 1504 at the Delray Racquet Club to Marwan Alshehhi and Saeed Alghamdi this summer, said FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela.
Alshehhi was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the second jet to strike the World Trade Center. Alghamdi was on United Flight 93, which crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh when passengers apparently thwarted an attempt to target another building.
"There is now a link between the editor's wife and the terrorists," Orihuela said.
But just as quickly, she said the FBI wasn't drawing immediate conclusions.
"It's just a coincidence right now," Orihuela said. "I'm sure there will be some sort of follow-up."
"We are not searching the apartment at this time," Orihuela said from outside the tabloid's Boca Raton headquarters. "We are focusing on this building."
The Delray apartment is central to a massive federal investigation into the terrorist attacks. Investigators trying to piece the puzzle together created a diagram that includes photos of the 19 hijackers who seized control of four airplanes on Sept. 11.
At the center of the diagram, which was obtained by the Miami Herald: an image of a house with the address 755 Dotterel Road. Arrows connect nine of the hijackers to the icon.
Two terrorists, Alshehhi and Alghamdi, rented the apartment in Delray Beach just north of Boca Raton, the FBI said. The other seven, including suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta, are connected because they visited the apartment or otherwise had a direct tie to the inhabitants, a federal official familiar with the investigation told the Miami Herald.
Previously, only Saeed Alghamdi and another terrorist, Ahmed Alnami, both aboard United Flight 93, had been connected to the Delray Racquet Club apartment.
It is clear that the apartment was a meeting ground for terrorists, authorities say. Now they must determine whether unit 1504 was also a hatching ground for the anthrax attacks.
Gloria Irish, the wife of tabloid editor Michael Irish, was approached by reporters Sunday afternoon while walking her black Labrador retriever outside her Delray Beach home.
"I can't believe you people," said Irish, who works for Pelican Properties. "We are not making any comments."
Mike Irish, who, records show, is a licensed airplane pilot, several years ago was a member of the Civil Air Patrol based at a small-plane airport in Lantana, just north of Delray Beach, an official there told the Washington Post. One of the hijackers, Atta, reportedly rented a plane at that airport to practice flying for three days in August. Stevens, the Sun photo editor who died of anthrax Oct. 5, also lives in Lantana. But there is no indication whether Irish or Stevens ever crossed paths with Atta.
In other developments Sunday, a police officer and two lab technicians involved in the NBC anthrax investigation have tested positive for the bacteria, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. Nevada officials said four people who may have come into contact with a contaminated letter at a Microsoft office tested negative while results weren't known for two others.
The police officer had the bacteria in his nose, as did one lab technician. Another technician had a spore on her face. Both work for the city health department, which conducted the tests.
Exposure to the spores does not mean infection.
In Washington, meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he considered the anthrax cases in New York, Nevada and Florida to be instances of bioterrorism. "It certainly is an act of terrorism to send anthrax through the mail," he said on Fox News Sunday.
Thompson said he would ask Congress for more than $1.5-billion to take steps to counter bioterrorism threats. Some of the money would be used to purchase enough antibiotics to treat 12-million people for 60 days, six times the current supply.
And Attorney General John Ashcroft said it was "premature at this time to decide whether there is a direct link" to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, but "we should consider this potential."
The new New York cases brought to 12 the number of people around the nation who either have anthrax or have been exposed to it. That does not include a second NBC employee who is taking antibiotics after displaying symptoms of the disease.
Health investigators have tested more than 300 people at American Media and have found some people with "elevated levels" of antibodies, which the body produces to fight off disease, said Tim O'Connor, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department.
Though O'Connor said investigators don't know for sure whether those antibodies were produced to fight off anthrax or other diseases, such as HIV or hepatitis, he acknowledged that "there's an inkling it's for anthrax."
Still, only the results of a second test will show that for sure. Those tests probably will occur Wednesday or Thursday, and results should be available by Saturday, O'Connor said.
O'Connor said if other workers show an elevated antibody level for anthrax, chances are they came in contact with the disease at American Media, and not anywhere else.
All employees are taking antibiotics, and none is considered likely to become ill or die, O'Connor said.
News of the exposures has caused jitters around the world, with a number of false or pending cases reported over the weekend. Among them:
In Hawaii, hazardous-materials teams were called to Lihue Airport after passengers on a flight from Los Angeles discovered a white powder on their luggage after they arrived. Tests were being done.
In Uniontown, Pa., a 49-year-old woman was given Cipro, an antibiotic for anthrax, and was tested for exposure after receiving an envelope containing a powdery substance. She was later released from a hospital.
In England, several hundred people were evacuated from Canterbury Cathedral after a worker said he saw a man dropping a white powder in one of the chapels. Workers in wearing chemical protection suits cleared up the powder and took samples for analysis.
_ Information from the Miami Herald, Associated Press and Times staff writer Chris Tisch was used in this report.