City's trade center enhances security

Upper deck closed, ID badges required after attacks in N.Y.

October 05, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Until Sept. 11, Baltimore's World Trade Center was an open building whose Top of the World observation deck beckoned tourists and schoolchildren to the 27th floor for panoramic views of the city. Today it is as inviting as a fortress.

White concrete barricades ring the brick plaza facing East Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor. Four gray Army barges protect its harbor side to ward off any explosives-laden speedboats that might appear among the paddleboats.

In the lobby, Maryland Transportation Authority Police officers check newly issued employee identification cards near a barbed-wire fence set up inside to block access to elevators. The viewing platform will remain closed indefinitely.

Although not considered a likely terrorist target, the pentagonal building with a name suddenly synonymous with tragedy has battened down like no other place in Baltimore.

Its operators also have taken more visible steps than those at its cousin World Trade Centers around the country - at least one of which has pondered changing its name since the attacks.

"This is a very visible public building," said Kate Philips, spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration, its owner. "These measures were put in place for security and to keep a perimeter around the building in case there were additional attacks."

The tight security contrasts with the scene at City Hall three blocks north. All visitors and employees must walk through a metal detector, but as before, a single chain is all that keeps cars and trucks from driving to the front door on North Holliday Street.

At police headquarters on East Baltimore Street, concrete traffic barriers such as those at the trade center have been installed to keep vehicles at a safe distance.

The response at Baltimore's World Trade Center began shortly after the assaults Sept. 11 and has been coordinated by Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari and other top state officials. City officials were not consulted, said Mayor Martin O'Malley.

About two hours after planes hit New York's twin towers, Maryland officials closed the center due to what they believed was "credible" information that it could be targeted as well. That night, Quentin Leroy Johnson, 22, of Southwest Baltimore was arrested on charges of causing a false investigation. He is accused of telling state officials that Baltimore's World Trade Center was a terrorist target. Johnson, who is being held without bond at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 17 in Baltimore District Court.

Since then, the Baltimore building has received two unsubstantiated bomb threats - on Sept. 12 and Sept. 14 - that led to evacuations, Philips said.

Meanwhile, new protective measures were added. The barges, on loan from the Army, were floated into place Sept. 22 based on a consultant's recommendation.

Security has relaxed a bit lately. Gaps in the barriers allow pedestrians to cross the brick plaza, but not the narrow passage between the building and the water.

Some of its 800 employees find the security excessive. "I think it's overkill, to tell you the truth," said Thomas Wible, an accountant who works on the 13th floor.

Still, Wible said, he is glad security is tighter, but not because he fears terrorists: He said the building's former openness - employees did not have ID cards before the Sept. 11 attacks - had been exploited by thieves, including one who recently snatched an unattended purse.

Others have mixed feelings.

"You can't be any safer in Baltimore than the World Trade Center," said Robyne Sherman, a lawyer who was on her way to her 18th-floor office. "At the same time, you are reminded every day what happened on Sept. 11 because there are Jersey [barriers] and officers carrying guns."

Robert Treadway, a loan officer who works on the 25th floor, said: "It sort of gives you the feeling this could be the next target. It's the only building getting this sort of treatment."

This treatment stands out not only in Baltimore - it exceeds security at World Trade Centers from Jacksonville to San Diego.

None of the other centers - all of which must be licensed by the World Trade Centers Association, formerly headquartered in Tower One in New York - have taken such drastic steps, according to a survey conducted by Penelope W. Menzies, who is on the association's board and is outgoing executive director of the World Trade Center Institute in Baltimore.

"But then, I don't think anybody else got the bomb threats we have," Menzies said.

The New York and Baltimore centers would seem to have shared little beyond the name. At nearly 1,360 feet, the twin towers dwarfed Baltimore's 423-foot version. The towers housed more than 50 times as many employees as Baltimore's 24-year-old center, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei.

But both cities were among 16 charter members of the World Trade Centers Association, said its founder and president, Guy F. Tozzoli. Despite losing its flagship twin towers, the nonprofit group today has 330 members in nearly 100 countries.

One of the association's aims is to promote peace and stability through trade. Now its name has been tarnished, Tozzoli said.

In Oregon, officials at World Trade Center Portland said this week that they were considering adopting a new name, but Tozzoli said he is happy that they apparently have abandoned the idea.

Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.

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