A wary Washington battens down the hatches

Security boosted in event of retaliation for Iraq war

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When war broke out this week, a scary thought occurred to Cherry Blossom Princess Jayne Visser: If terrorists struck in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she worried, they might take aim at the festival starting today in the nation's capital - a public party at which she'll serve as a white-gloved ambassador.

"I was just like, `Oh my gosh, what am I doing in Washington? I'm sitting on a big target,'" said Visser, who will represent her home state of Montana in the festival. She quickly called her father back home in Missoula.

"My dad's always like, `Ben Franklin said if you give up your freedom for security, you'll soon find you have neither of both,'" said Visser, 20, a congressional aide to Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican. "So that's something I think of."

Visser overcame her jitters - and presumably so will the 49 other princesses gathering here soon. But the mood of the city is far from serene. The city's entire police force is working 12-hour shifts, bolstering their patrols of bridges and historic landmarks.

Tourist attractions are on heightened alert. Public tours of the Capitol are on hold, and security is so tight around the White House that police are barring visitors from walking up to its iron gates.

Around the country, some schools have banned class trips to the capital, and students who do visit sometimes stumble onto a formidable security force.

"We drove by the Pentagon with a video camera hanging out the window and a soldier started yelling at us - I guess he didn't like us taping him," said Jeremy Wier, a University of West Georgia freshman who visited this week, adding that his fiancee worried they would be arrested. "She kept saying, `They're going to come after us.'"

In federal buildings around town, the buzz words are "worst-case scenario." This week, Justice Department workers said they would receive plastic whistles in case the building is attacked, and rescuers needed to find them in smoke or rubble.

"We're not in full panic mode yet, but we're doing lots of things we should have done years ago, going over emergency evacuation and sheltering procedures," said Marty Burkhouse, 57, a Justice Department staffer who lives in Columbia.

Burkhouse and about 30 others gathered this week in a department conference room to help plan how they would survive if stranded in the building. The next day, he brought in a supply of a prescription medication, and another staffer brought in a television for emergency use. The office, Burkhouse learned, is stockpiling food and water for three days.

"Somebody says there's a huge box of granola bars somewhere," he said.

Some federal workers worry simply about getting to work. Subway riders such as Jan Ulan, a 48-year-old Labor Department employee who lives in Columbia, tailor their commutes to keep minutes spent in the subway tunnels to a minimum.

"I'm not underground very long - that helps a little bit," Ulan said.

Still, her nerves were hardly soothed by what awaited her at work this week: emergency drills and meetings about how to find shelter in the building.

"There's a lot of gallows humor about spending 72 hours in a conference room with your co-workers and no windows," Ulan said. "Someone joked that if we need to test the air outside, to see if it's OK to breathe, we should send out the smokers."

But not everyone was daunted by the "code-orange" warning - the government's second-highest terror alert level.

Not far from the federal buildings, visitors were filing into the MCI Center, the sounds of schmaltzy ice-skating music drowning out talk of terrorism while skaters practiced for the World Figure Skating Championships this weekend.

The event is expected to draw 200,000 people, about half of them from out of town. Yesterday, some of those visitors, such as Karan Chinn, a British ice-dancing enthusiast, sniffed dismissively at the notion of staying home.

"Sport is a peaceful thing, isn't it?" said Chinn, a skater who once competed at the Junior World Championship. "I don't think anyone should get their pants in a twist over this."

Running shorts around the city, though, were in a twist. Organizers of the D.C. Marathon canceled tomorrow's race, saying roughly 1,200 of the nearly 7,000 runners had expressed anxiety about terrorism. But some dissenters were planning an unofficial protest marathon.

"We are runners," the group's Web site declared. "We will run."

Terrorism fears come at a bad time for city promoters, some of whom spent the past week at baseball meetings in Phoenix, trying to woo the Montreal Expos to the capital. As war loomed this week, Mayor Anthony Williams was forced to cancel his pitch to Major League Baseball; instead he did his Washington cheerleading by video hookup.

Some visitors are loath to make the trip here. Actor Robert Redford has canceled a lecture next week at the Kennedy Center on the arts and public policy.

And some students are staying away, too. The Close Up Foundation, a civic education group that usually draws roughly 1,000 students a week to the city this time of year, is reporting skittish calls from teachers and is expecting a 12 percent drop in attendance next week.

Still, Washington tourism officials say that hotel occupancy has stayed steady at 75 percent, typical for March and above the national average.

But check-in may take a little longer. At the Marriott Wardman Park, nestled in a leafy neighborhood, security guards spent the week questioning every driver who tried to approach the cul-de-sac outside the hotel.

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