Latest FBI terror-attack alert tests resources, nerves of security forces

Police, protection firms on overdrive since Sept. 11

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 13, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Police and private security forces stretched their resources and imaginations across Maryland yesterday looking for fresh ways to respond to the FBI's latest terror-attack alert.

Baltimore-area traffic snarled as police began random checks of commercial trucks approaching major bridges and tunnels, including the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels, the outer harbor Francis Scott Key Bridge and the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River.

Security also was bolstered along the John F. Kennedy Highway, the stretch of Interstate 95 from Baltimore County northeast to the state line.

"We are checking the drivers and the backgrounds of drivers to ensure they are licensed to carry what they are carrying," explained Cpl. Greg Prioleau, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. "We are looking for any suspicious packages or items on the truck that may seem to be out of place."

The extra scrutiny will continue indefinitely, police said.

FBI officials would not elaborate yesterday on the stark, two-sentence warning issued Thursday directing all law enforcement to be on highest alert through the weekend and asking civilians to look out for suspicious activity.

The focus on commercial trucks came after separate FBI warnings to local police agencies to be on special alert for truck bombs or trucks hauling hazardous materials.

In Washington, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said the FBI alert was intended to "promote caution, not incite alarm."

"Americans can assist in this effort by going about their lives with a heightened sense of vigilance and a renewed sense of responsibility for their neighbors, co-workers and communities," Ashcroft told reporters yesterday.

Maryland police and local officials attempted to increase their vigilance and focus on potential targets.

Police in Anne Arundel County said they are on standby to assist with security at state and federal buildings and installations in the county such as the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and train stations.

In Harford County, where dangerous chemicals are stored at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, local officials seek to learn about appropriate responses to chemical threats, said Doug Richmond, the county's emergency manager.

The Maryland State Highway Administration added extra staff to its Hanover headquarters, in Anne Arundel County, to help monitor traffic flow and spot potential problems.

Crews will also be on the road looking for suspicious vehicles such as cars parked along the highway, said spokeswoman Valerie Edgar.

Security was tighter at area malls. Retail workers said they experienced numerous bomb threats immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks and are braced for another wave that might result from the FBI announcement.

"We take threats extremely seriously, and if it is a hoax, we will prosecute," said Karen Geary, vice president and general manager of The Mall in Columbia. "This has been a hair-raising and life-altering situation, and we don't need people who get enjoyment from other people's anxiety."

The steadily heightening state of security is taking its toll on police officers and emergency personnel, many of whom have been working extra hours and performing many new tasks since Sept. 11.

"You've got to wonder how much higher of an alert we can possibly be on," said Lt. Thomas Gardner, Waterloo barracks commander of the Maryland State Police.

Dr. Jeffrey T. Mitchell, president of the Ellicott City-based International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, said his organization has fielded thousands of phone calls from police attempting to cope with stress since the attacks.

"Right now, everyone from the president down is asking citizens to call police if they see anything suspicious," Mitchell said. "People are overreacting. They're waiting for the next shoe to drop, and police are starting to get frustrated with citizens who are calling in for minor situations."

Several Annapolis residents called police when they saw a slow-flying military plane over the city yesterday afternoon. One woman driving by the city police station on Taylor Avenue ran into the station for cover. Moments later, police said, skydivers jumped out of the plane. It turned out to be a practice run for an event planned for today's Naval Academy homecoming game.

Nine police officers guarded a suitcase found in a Glen Burnie Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday afternoon while officials determined whether it contained explosives.

It was filled with clothing and pictures, police said.

Rabbis in the Baltimore area said yesterday that they were not going to cancel services because of rumors swirling through their congregations about possible terrorist attacks on synagogues.

The rabbis said that they have increased security and were working closely with local police departments.

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