These being touchy times, Eva Sicca had an immediate reaction to a Civil Defense siren that wailed over East Baltimore for more than a half-hour yesterday.
"I thought we were being invaded," said Mrs. Sicca, a resident of Armistead Gardens.
Said an official of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency: "Saddam Hussein does not have missiles that can reach Maryland."
Still, the siren that went off atop the old Esskay meatpacking plant on East Baltimore Street had hundreds of people concerned, annoyed and puzzled.
"I turned on the television," Mrs. Sicca said. "But there wasn't any news."
Civil Defense sirens -- installed during a Cold War age when Americans prepared for the possibility that Soviet missiles could land on such places as Patterson Park or the Broadway Recreation Pier -- go off for five minutes every Monday at 1 p.m. as a test.
But yesterday wasn't Monday and the siren kept going, on and on.
The police, fire department, television stations, and the Baltimore Civil Defense office were flooded with calls.
"One lady was terrified," said a police officer at the Northeast District, which handled about 20 calls. "She was crying and screaming. People wanted to know why they were going off."
"Some people were scared," said Capt. Patrick P. Flynn, spokesman for the city Fire Department. "Others were just concerned."
They were all told the same thing: It was an accident, a mistake, somebody goofed.
There had been some problem with the gizmo that sets off the city's 112 Civil Defense sirens, which are used to alert the public to disasters such as chemical spills, Captain Flynn said.
When workers from the phone company, which provides circuits for the sirens, checked the mechanical problem yesterday, they set off the Esskay siren by accident about 1 p.m. and it screamed over Highlandtown until citizens complained. Then they shut it off.
"If it wasn't for the Persian Gulf, it would've just been a nuisance," said Captain Flynn.