Flying to Atlanta, above the fear Travelers vow not to let terrorists run their lives

July 28, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

It was a defiant if jittery bunch that gathered yesterday at gate D14 of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They waited for hours -- passengers on the early USAir flight to Atlanta.

Rigorous security brought them to the airport long before the plane's departure. Faith in that security brought them out at all.

Victoria Coombs was among them. For Christmas, the Johns Hopkins Hospital nurse gave her niece and nephew in Altoona, Pa., tickets to the Olympics. Equestrian. Baseball. Track and field.

They were to meet in Atlanta, along with Coombs' sister driving in from Ohio. But plans had changed hours earlier, while the Coombses slept, when a package exploded in Centennial Olympic Park.

L The children won't be going to Atlanta. Dad pulled the plug.

"I didn't try to talk my brother out of it," said Coombs, who lives in Sparks. "I can understand not wanting to put your children in danger.

"I thought about it this morning, and I decided I wasn't going to let a lunatic rule my life."

Airplanes and the Olympics.

Two weeks ago Americans had a passing fear of the first, an excited anticipation of the second. Two explosions have changed that. A little more than a week ago, TWA Flight 800 burst into flames and fell out of the sky.

Then early yesterday morning a carefully wrapped bomb placed in Centennial Olympic Park, featuring much celebration and loose security, went off. Two people died; more than 100 were injured.

But travelers at D14, specialists in the psychology of trauma and anxiety, and law enforcement officials had a simple message yesterday: Bombs and their random cruelty are facets of life in the 1990s, along with gang shootings and earthquakes and AIDS.

The advice from hearty travelers, doctors and police officers: Live with the danger, including the nagging fear that comes with it, or curl up in your closet.

"Unless you live in a vacuum, bad things can happen to you," said James H. Geibel, a Baltimore County Police detective assigned to the hazardous devices unit.

"The bomb is particularly frightening because people don't know when it's coming, or if they are in its path. But our lives are filled with risk to begin with, some we don't even know we're taking."

Roslyn Diamond, clinical director of the Anxiety and Depression Treatment Group in Baltimore, said the number of patients suffering from a phobia of crowded places, fear of flying and general anxiety has risen 25 percent since April 19, 1995 -- the day of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The two recent explosions have accelerated a public fear that emerged with that terrorist act, she said.

"Up until now Americans have been able to concentrate on taking control of their own lives, and had the luxury of viewing terrorism and catastrophe as something that happened on the outside," Diamond said. "This is the first time that questions of safety are touching people's day-to-day lives."

Lois Finifter, traveling yesterday to Atlanta with her daughter, Becky, already subscribes to the life-is-dangerous point of view. When a friend called yesterday morning, a few hours before Finifter's plane left for Atlanta, she said: "Turn on the television."

Finifter did and, sure enough, there were the sirens and microphones and other symbols of America the Dangerous.

"I wasn't even shocked, I really wasn't," Finifter said. "I feel like you could be sitting in a McDonald's and something horrible could happen to you."

But Becky Finifter, 11, was scared. An aspiring gymnast specializing in the vault, Becky has thought of little else but her Olympics tickets for months -- seats for the women's individual competition. The explosion interrupted that.

A friend from school is in Atlanta, and she watched the men compete the other night. "She said it was great, really exciting," Becky said. "That's what I have to keep thinking of."

The Abramses -- Harold, his wife Carol and daughter Christen -- of Turnbull, Conn., sat nearby. "My husband told me we were going to be safe," Carol said, wryly. "I guess we're a little crazy and, yes, a little scared."

Harold is a surgeon in Turnbull, Carol a nurse. The plan was to hit the Olympics for four days, then travel to Virginia Beach where Christen was scheduled to perform in a tap-dancing competition. Carol had second thoughts yesterday at 5 a.m., soon after she turned on CBS Radio News.

"I thought they were still talking about the plane," Carol said, blending disasters. "Then I realized they were talking about the Olympics. It's certainly taken the thrill out of it."

But Harold quoted his own geopolitical position paper: "We're not going to give in to terrorists and let them dictate how we are going to run our lives. I still say it's more dangerous driving on the interstate."

As Atlanta coped with disaster, Baltimore gathered to celebrate its own explosion: the destruction of Lexington Terrace towers. Those who gathered to watch the public housing collapse said those apartments had proved more dangerous than any terrorist bomb.

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