20,000 walkers resume a tradition

Event: Heightened security and a smaller crowd mark the return of the Bay Bridge Walk after a two-year hiatus.

May 03, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Armed with umbrellas and optimistically decked out in shorts despite the cool, wet weather, Kathy Deweese and her 9-year-old son breezed through a security checkpoint yesterday morning and prepared to resume a tradition: the annual Bay Bridge Walk.

The event had been canceled the past two years, in 2002 because of inclement weather and last year because it would have diverted police from homeland security duties.

"I've gone every year" it's been held, said Deweese, 45, of Brooklyn Park. The walk has only been canceled one other time in its 30-year history, in 1980. It was postponed once, in 1977.

"It's tradition, it's fun," Deweese said, glad to be back even though she admits she's afraid of heights. "I don't look over the edge."

She was one of an estimated 20,000 people who braved the early-morning drizzle - which gave way to clear skies by 11 a.m. - to make the 4.3-mile trek across the eastbound span of the Bay Bridge, which was closed to traffic. The turnout was low, about half of the usual number, but the organizers, the Maryland Transportation Authority, attributed that to the weather and the two-year hiatus.

Aside from more elbow room, the walkers were also met with new procedures this year, including heightened security. Everyone had to pass through a checkpoint where their bags were searched before being allowed to board one of 166 shuttle buses that took them to the bridge.

At Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, one of three designated parking areas for the walk, people began arriving as early as 6:30 a.m. although buses didn't leave for the bridge until 8:30 a.m.

Private security personnel in red shirts and headsets shouted instructions to the crowd: "Bags open and unzipped! Move forward!" The crowd complied, grappling with hundreds of strollers, backpacks and camera bags.

"Since 9/11, everything's tightening up," said Sgt. Allen Miller of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, who was stationed at the college. By 9 a.m., the team of checkers - who were looking mostly for alcohol, drugs and weapons - had confiscated a pocket knife but nothing else.

"It's been pretty smooth," Miller said.

But the process had at least one critic: 26-year-old Marcus Johnson of Glen Burnie.

"I can't imagine that little bit of security at the front was it," Johnson said. "I was expecting a metal detector at least. That's insane."

Police presence was strong, though. Officers lined the path from the buses to the bridge entrance, where a giant paper scroll was rolled out, offering walkers a chance to write to Marines in Fallujah, Iraq.

"Thanks," Becky Hall, 9, of Severna Park scrawled in marker. This was her second walk, and she said she was looking forward to the view and the fact that her sister wasn't there to tell her the bridge was going to break, like she did last time.

Soon after Becky left her mark, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made his, ushered to the scroll with media representatives trailing behind. "Thanks for what you are doing for all of us," he wrote, signing off as "The Gov."

Ehrlich was on his way to a Little League parade in Ferndale, but stopped by the bridge to greet walkers and reminisce about his early days participating in the Governor's Bay Bridge Run, a separate event that takes place before the 9 a.m. walk.

"I did that before I even got married," Ehrlich said. "That was with my girlfriend Kendel then."

It was a family event for most participants yesterday.

"I do it every year," said Gail Smith, 44, of Odenton. "I took the kids when I was pregnant and they were inside me, and then in strollers, and now they walk."

Three generations of Everings from Dundalk were on the walk for the first time together, though the youngest - 5-year-old Alexia - spent much of the time in the arms of her 20-year-old aunt, Erin Evering.

"She gets tired," Erin Evering said, just as another youngster gave up nearby. "Can we stop and take a break? I need to take a break," said Miranda Gray, 8, of Mechanicsville. "My feet hurt."

At the halfway point, kids were giving up left and right. Hurley Froman, 6, caught a ride on her uncle's shoulders, until his wife called the pair and asked them to slow down a bit. She was trailing behind with Hurley's 8-year-old sister Greeley. When they caught up, the kids took a breather near the bridge's peak, 186 feet above the water, and peered at the bay through slats in the bridge.

On the downward side of the bridge, 40-year-old Chip Craig from Valley Forge, Pa., was turning the tables. His 7-year-old son, Jacob, was doing the labor while Dad relaxed - albeit awkwardly - in a wagon being pulled by Jacob and buddy Addison Lash, 5.

"This is truly the best walk. It's beautiful, "said Addison's father, Vincent Lash, 41, who lives in Bel Air and was about to complete his fifth bridge walk. "This is truly a good Maryland day."

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