No car bomb, just a big traffic mess Crude device fizzles, but heats up motorists

April 02, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Traffic ground to a halt for 2 1/2 hours in downtown Baltimore yesterday when police discovered what appeared to be a makeshift bomb inside a car parked on East Lombard Street, forcing them to shut down six square blocks north of the Inner Harbor.

Police believe the crude device found in a black 1990 Nissan Sentra -- made of three containers of gasoline connected with a series of wicks -- was intended to burn the car, and not to explode on a downtown street.

Investigators said one of the wicks was set on fire, causing damage to the car's interior, but the fire burned out on a fire-resistant child safety seat before it reached the gasoline. Had the attempt been successful, police said, it probably would not have blown up.

Police did not know of a motive, but were trying to find the car's owner. The Nissan had New York license plates and had been reported stolen Monday in Baltimore County. Police said they believed a joy rider tried to torch the car or it might have been a poor attempt to defraud an insurance company.

Taking no chances, officers shut down several downtown streets and diverted midday traffic, causing long backups and frustrating drivers and pedestrians who had to walk blocks out of their way.

"It's a mess," shouted one driver stuck at Calvert and Lombard streets, after it took him 45 minutes to travel five blocks. "I am trying to get to Annapolis and thought I would take a short cut through the middle of the city."

Police were investigating but had not made any arrests. "It appears that whoever concocted the device intended to burn the vehicle," said Agent Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a police spokesman.

The car was discovered by police about 11: 30 a.m. parked on the right side of East Lombard St. between Calvert and St. Paul streets, in front of the Schoenfeld Insurance Co.

As police were investigating, someone called in a bomb threat to a building a block away in the 100 block of E. Pratt St., forcing even more streets around the Inner Harbor to be closed. That threat was determined to be a hoax.

It all added up to frustration, for police who had to deal with the threats and for angry citizens who were inconvenienced.

"It's really ridiculous," said Fred Pagliara, who said he spent 45 minutes driving three blocks. "I can't believe it."

"This is crazy," added driver Chuck Lane. Sitting motionless behind Lane was Bill Rutka. "It's taken me 15 minutes to go one block," he said. "But I guess as long as it doesn't blow up, it's OK. At least it's not snowing."

Central District Lt. Joe Chianca said he had no choice but to halt traffic. "It's an extremely dangerous situation," he said. "I know people are impatient. But I am going to err on the side of caution and shut the streets down."

Inside the burned car, police said, they found a plastic pan filled with gasoline on the floor of the driver's side with a wick going to another container of gasoline in the back of the car.

Submerged in the pan of gasoline was a one-gallon jug, also filled with gasoline, and a wick leading from that to the outside through a partially closed window. It was that wick that was set on fire.

An official at Schoenfeld Insurance, who refused to give his name, said one of his employees discovered the car yesterday morning. It is unclear when the fire had been set. Police were first called about 11: 30 a.m., and the first responding officers quickly blocked off the area.

Officers not only halted traffic within two or three blocks of the street, but kept people from walking along Calvert and St. Paul streets. Workers were allowed in and out of the Legg Mason high rise, but were barred from lingering on the corner.

To add to the misery, a four-car pileup that injured two people at the bottom of the Jones Falls Expressway further hampered traffic downtown.

"The reason for the area being cordoned off was a safety issue," Weinhold said. "Until the bomb technicians determine it is not an explosive device, we feel the need to protect the citizens and officers in the area. Citizens need to understand that we have their best interest in mind."

At 2 p.m., with the gasoline safely removed by firefighters, Chianca, speaking in official police language and without a hint of emotion, brought relief to motorists and ended the traffic nightmare.

"Open up Calvert and Pratt," he told a police dispatcher. "Open it all up. Let traffic run normally."

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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