Alums have up close look at anthrax scare

Besides the yellow police tape, reporter David Leonhardt ’95 said the main newsroom of the New York Times looks just like normal.

His desk is there unscathed, his computer, his notes. Everything is the same, except for the notable absence of fellow reporter Judith Miller from her desk just yards away from Leonhardt’s.

Miller, a Times reporter who co-wrote a book about biological warfare, opened an envelope at her desk last Friday containing white powder initially thought to be anthrax. Though it tested negative, the incident at the Times is but one of many scares close to Yale alumni in the journalism arena. Aside from increased security and extra caution, many alumni said their jobs have gone on as usual, using work as a way to cope.

Leonhardt, who writes for the business section of the New York Times, said he was meeting with an economist in the building’s 11th floor cafeteria when Miller opened the powder-filled envelope. He said he went to the lobby to see his guests out after their meeting ended at 11:15 a.m.

But a security guard told them not to leave — the building was on “lock down.”

Leonhardt said he directed his guests back up to the cafeteria and then returned to finish an article on the third floor, where the seasoned reporter had not yet scooped the story of Miller’s envelope.

But then, at 11:45 a.m., Leonhardt said a managing editor came to the floor and explained the situation, followed by police who sealed off the area and told employees to remain on the floor until further notice.

Later, an announcement over the loudspeaker ordered third floor employees to evacuate.

“They probably didn’t want us to see the guys in biohazard suits tramping through the office,” Leonhardt said.

Employees were directed to either the first floor lobby or the fifth floor, and Leonard said he and others headed to the first floor, hoping to exit the building.

But, Leonhardt’s foot had barely touched down on 43rd Street when several police officers swarmed to him and his co-workers, ordered them back inside, and then posted guards in front of the door, he said.

While the reporters waited inside, Leonhardt said many called to reassure family members who might have heard about the situation on the news.

“We’re not all choking in here, we’re just hanging out and waiting for tests to be confirmed,” Leonhardt said he told his family.

Though reporters were separated from their computers for nearly two hours, Leonhardt said once the immediate danger passed, the news day went on as usual.

Editors missed one of their main daily meetings, but Leonhardt said they went right into their next one.

And as for the reporters, Leonhardt said newsrooms get an adrenaline boast from excitement.

Reporters finished their articles in record time, compressing three hours of work into two hours and skipping their coffee breaks, Leonhardt said.

William Borders ’60, a senior editor, said the day might not have gone so smoothly if the interruption came closer to deadline.

Borders, who works on the fifth floor, said he barely noticed the influx of third floor employees. He said they huddled around televisions and speculated quietly about the situation.

But Borders said he is now noticing increased security.

All employees were given an anthrax safety manual, said Bob Semple ’59, who works on the editorial board on the 10th floor.

He also said that while employees have always had ID cards, he has not had to show his since he started at the Times over 20 years ago. Now he has to wear it around his neck.

“These are tiny, tiny adjustments … that haven’t fundamentally altered the way anyone does business,” Semple said. “I get on the Subway, go to work, write, edit … that’s the way it’s always been.”

Bob Kaiser ’64, who writes for The Washington Post, said he refuses to be scared, despite a “weird occurrence” — white powder — in his building Tuesday which summoned more than 20 emergency vehicles.

John Zucker ’76, who is a lawyer for ABC, said the corporation held health meetings every hour on Monday. Zucker attended one of the meetings, and he said it was reassuring.

Zucker– who works in the building adjacent to where Tom Brokaw’s assistant contracted anthrax in mid-September — said his work day has not changed except that people want to talk about the crisis.

“We all have jobs to do and we must keep doing them,” Zucker said.

Noah Kotch ’97, an ABC employee who works on the floor where the anthrax was found, said he could not comment because of ABC’s policy.

Other Yale alumni who work for NBC were not allowed to comment.

Seth Schiesel ’94, a business reporter for the New York Times sits less than fifty yards away from Miller’s desk where the white powder fell last Friday. He said he and his colleagues have been cracking jokes and making morbid comments to deal with the scare because “it’s all you can do.”

All reporters have private moments when they get scared, Schiesel said, but from day to day, they have a job to do.

“Sometimes it’s easier to put your head down and work on one, isolated story,” he said. “We cope by focusing on what we’re working on.”

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