The fateful message arrived from the State Department on a Friday afternoon, a serious but routine communication to Food and Drug Administration headquarters: A man had phoned the U.S. embassy in Santiago saying he had "injected the fruit with cyanide." The State Department message said the call was probably a hoax. It was March 3, and although no one in Washington or Santiago knew it, the elements for the international fruit crisis of 1989 were in place. Poisoned grapes, and perhaps other poisoned fruit, were already in the hold of the Chilean ship Almeria Star, sailing north for Philadelphia. On account of two grapes, it seemed, a nation repeatedly advised to eat more fresh fruit would be thrown into confusion, if not panicked, and the economy of another country would be threatened. Chile and the United States are still seized with dilemma. In stores across the country, the shelves are clear and signs are hung: "We are not selling any fruit from Chile." Twenty million dollars worth, up to two million crates of fruit, are under guard at docks and airports around the country. Ships tied up in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami remain laden with grapes, melons, peaches, nectarines, pears, plums and other fruit. Another $4 million worth is on its way and $15 million more waits on the docks in Chile. "It's about the worst case we've had," said FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young. "It's been agonizing." There are few precedents in history, but since 1982, the FDA has had some experience with this kind of crime. Last year, FDA fielded 280 tampering threats or complaints. The year before it was 760. At least 12 people have died of cyanide poisoning in these cases. Such experiences weighted the decision-making process that would unfold. Monday, March 6, still following routine, the FDA inspectors on the docks were asked to check some samples of Chilean fruit. The inspectors' normal job is to test for routinely used pesticides and for the sulfite preservatives used to pack the grapes. They pulled a few extra crates. At the FDA press office here, a brief news release was issued, noting the threat and saying it was probably a hoax. It was the second call, which came on March 8 to the U.S. embassy in Santiago, that alarmed FDA officials. The caller said he was upset, he had read the business section of a newspaper in Santiago, and saw that the FDA considered his earlier call a hoax. It was no hoax, he said. The State Department again passed the message to FDA, this one on March 9, again suggesting it was a hoax. But this time the FDA began to act. "We instituted tests on an emergency basis to see whether fruit immersed in cyanide, or injected with cyanide would retain it for the many days it would take to ship the fruit up here," said Arvin Schroff, deputy director of the FDA's field operations and one of those who participated in the key meetings at FDA. The result: The acid in grapes quickly broke down the cyanide but it persisted in other fruit. Inspectors were asked to begin examining up to 2 percent of all Chilean fruit. The Almeria Star docked that same day at Tioga Marine Terminal on the Delaware River in North Philadelphia. Aboard were 395,000 crates of fruit, including 225,000 crates of grapes. All told, dock workers estimate, there were billions of berries on that ship. On Saturday, about 50 investigators from the Philadelphia region were on the docks poring over crates of grapes. "We set up tables all along the pier, and we brought by pallets. They must have had about 75 tables," said Barry Cooper, a dock worker who helped move crates. "Anything that looked like it was tampered with, they looked at." They looked for powder, discoloration, punctures or cuts, and softness. FDA officials went home on Friday the 10th, still thinking the case was likely to be a hoax. "We have tampering things every day," Schroff said. Nonetheless, by Sunday, the number of searchers had grown to more than 160, more than 15 percent of the FDA's entire field inspection force. By this time, they had looked at more than 2 percent of the produce coming off the ship. Sunday evening at about 11 o'clock, Schroff was at home when the call came. They had found cyanide. Of 15 suspect bunches sent to the FDA laboratory in Philadelphia, one had two grapes that tested positive for cyanide. "I was very surprised," Schroff said. "I was surprised that they found anything at all, and even more surprised that it was in grapes. We thought that it would have been completely degraded in the time it took to ship." Schroff and others went that night to the FDA offices in Rockville for meetings that lasted until 4 a.m. Some had to be recalled from a meeting in Harper's Ferry that night, including John M. Taylor, associate commisioner for regulatory affairs, and Ronald G. Chesmore, director of regional operations. Richard Swanson, director of emergency operations, never left the office Sunday night, but napped on the couch before the key meeting the next morning. Regional offices were ordered to hold all Chilean fruit. A car was dispatched here from Philadelphia with a photo of three grapes: two had puncture wounds with white circles around them. It was cyanide, a tiny amount but alarming confirmation of the reality of the telephoned threat in Santiago. The third grape was only cut. Young called the crucial meeting for 7 a.m. in his office. By lunch time the decision was made to pull Chilean fruit from circulation and to warn the public not to eat any of it. When FDA officials met on Monday morning in the commissioner's office, several facts stood out. They knew that if the grapes had even a little cyanide, much more was probably there originally. And it seemed very unlikely that grapes would be the only fruit injected. In most any other fruit, discoloration might not occur, a puncture wound might be extremely hard to spot, and it would take only a very small amount of cyanide to be lethal. Other fruit, not grapes, seemed the greatest danger. Also in the minds of the officials that morning was that the first call had come four days after the Almeria Star had set sail from Chile. That suggested that tainted fruit may already be in the country. "It was clearly most prudent to tell people not to consume any Chilean fruit," Schroff said. "Sampling and testing was an option, but we soon realized we couldn't do that. There is no known mechanism for doing that kind of test," Schroff said. Laborious visual inspection of tens of thousands of crates was the only possibility. "The key thing was detention. We had to take the fruit out of commerce and the marketplace. We had to warn the public immediately. It was an agonizing thing. We knew the kind of hardship it would be on Chile and others, but that could not be our primary concern. "We have been ridiculed in the press and elsewhere. Only two lousy grapes and we do this kind of thing! What if we don't find any more? But the commissioner made the decision in conscience that you cannot hide this information from the American people." The situation was potentially the worst of all because it was not a local problem and poisoned fruit might already be in stores and homes. Second, and more crucial, there is no simple way to test for cyanide in fruit. In the Tylenol poisoning case in Chicago in 1982, there were techniques which allowed investigators to test millions of capsules for cyanide very rapidly. When Palestinian terrorists injected mercury into Israeli oranges in 1978, inspectors could X-ray 10 percent of the fruit quickly. There is no quick test for cyanide inside a fruit, and the FDA could not have visually inspected all the fruit before it perished. It seemed clear, Young said, "We had better be safe than sorry. {Health and Human Services} Secretary {Louis W.} Sullivan told me that we should make the decision based on what is right, what the science says. So we did." Early Monday the Chilean ambasssador was informed. The Chilean Exporters Association and the American Produce Association were called. By afternoon, the second phase of the crisis had begun: negotiating how to get Chilean fruit back on the market. Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report from Philadelphia.