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Florida Becomes Pivotal in Terror Attacks/Anthrax Investigations - 2001-12-27

Probes of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington quickly led investigators to Florida. Twelve of 19 suspected hijackers of the airliners used in the attacks spent time in Florida in the months leading up to September 11. Florida also recorded the first of more than a dozen anthrax cases diagnosed in the United States since late September.

Federal investigators say, of the 12 hijacking suspects that spent time in Florida, at least two received extensive flight training in the state.

Mohamed Atta was listed as a passenger on the American Airlines flight that first struck the World Trade Center in New York. Marwan Alshehhi was listed on the United Airlines flight that followed minutes later. Both men took piloting courses at a central Florida aviation school. They later honed their skills on a flight simulator in the Miami area.

Simulator-operator Henry George trained the two men, unaware of his pupils' intentions. Mr. George said Atta and Alshehhi would have been well-prepared to conduct deadly missions on September 11.

"An airplane is an airplane is an airplane," he said. "They were capable of steering the airplanes the moment they sat down and grabbed the controls. We are not talking about a level of proficiency that requires precision. I mean, you turn, you head in a direction, and, if there is something in front of you, you are going to hit it."

But the chilling news did not end there. Investigators learned the suspects had a keen interest in crop dusters: small planes that potentially could be modified to disperse deadly chemical or biological agents.

J.D. Lee, manager of a Florida crop dusting outfit, told investigators Mohammed Atta twice visited his company. Mr. Lee said Atta asked about learning to fly and about purchasing crop dusters.

"They asked how hard [difficult] these airplanes are to fly, and I told them that these airplanes are very difficult to fly and that you need to be a pretty experienced pilot to fly these airplanes," he said.

Biological terrorism did emerge, though not from crop dusters. The U.S. Postal Service became an unwitting vehicle for the dispersal of the sometimes-lethal anthrax bacteria. The first anthrax case post-September 11 was recorded in Florida.

The victim, 63-year-old Robert Stevens, worked for a tabloid newspaper company in Palm Beach County. He was admitted to a hospital in late September and died two days after being diagnosed with inhalation anthrax - the most deadly form of the disease.

At first, federal officials downplayed the significance of the anthrax fatality. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson sought to reassure the public.

"This is an isolated case, and it is not contagious," he said. "There is no evidence of terrorism. And there are no other indications that anybody else has anthrax."

Mr. Thompson would soon be proven wrong. Another employee at the tabloid newspaper company contracted anthrax and narrowly survived after a prolonged hospital stay. In the weeks that followed, the anthrax scare spread to New York and Washington. A 94-year-old Connecticut woman died of inhalation anthrax in November - the fifth anthrax fatality in a two-month period.

In some quarters, anthrax fears turned to panic and even mischief, prompting local authorities to plead for calm and restraint. Across Florida, hundreds of false cases of potential bioterrorism have been reported. In Fort Lauderdale, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne issued a stern warning, saying pranks designed to create panic and hysteria will not be tolerated.

"It disrupts our regular police and fire services," he said. "You are going to be prosecuted under the laws of the state of Florida, because, in my estimation, you are one of the people who is helping develop this psyche of terrorism in this country."

The September 11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent anthrax incidents, sent shock waves through the U.S. economy. Florida's travel and tourism sectors, which account for nearly 20 percent of the state's economy, have been particularly hard hit.

America's collective psyche may be slowly healing after September 11, but the economic effects of the attacks may be felt in Florida, and elsewhere, for months to come.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001