Keeping the Bay Bridge safe from terrorism

3 agencies keep watch over 4-mile-long spans and the waters around it

August 25, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Nearly 140,000 vehicles cross the Bay Bridge every day, and more than 3,000 ships pass beneath it in a year. Its twin spans climb more than 30 stories into the sky to link Maryland's eastern and western shores.

"It's a critical piece of infrastructure in our state," said Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary McLhinney, whose agency patrols the bridge. "There's no intelligence to say that it's a terrorist target, but it's obviously vulnerable."

On Friday, three police officers who saw a woman videotaping the bridge stopped her car and arrested her husband, Ismail Selim Elbarasse, a Virginia man who according to investigators has raised money for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Yesterday, those assigned to patrol and protect the bridge talked - to a point - about how they do their jobs.

Three agencies, the Transportation Authority Police, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Maryland Natural Resources Police, keep watch over the 52-year-old bridge and the bay waters around it.

Transportation Authority Police patrol the bridge roadway, monitor video surveillance of traffic crossing it and guard its toll facility, McLhinney said. Last month, the authority police added four new patrol boats, acquired through homeland security grant money.

Officers also randomly check commercial vehicles, and they increase their presence when the terror alert is raised, McLhinney said.

McLhinney said that videotaping the bridge, while not illegal, "will draw the attention of law enforcement."

He did not give specifics on other methods of securing the bridge or say how many of the agency's 420 officers are assigned to it.

"A lot of what we do is not visible to the public, and it's meant to be this way," he said.

Maryland's homeland security director, Dennis R. Schrader, said the bridge is part of Maryland's "critical infrastructure" but added: "If we put all of our attention on one thing, the terrorists will attack something else."

Lt. Andrew Ely, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's Baltimore division, said authorities have been trained to look for suspicious activities around the bridge, such as filming of the bridge, loitering boats and boaters acting in a peculiar way.

Coast Guard petty officers have the authority to board any vessel in U.S. waters at any time, Ely said. He added that about two dozen Coast Guard petty officers are assigned to Station Annapolis.

And because the Bay Bridge is close to the Natural Resources Police boat repair facility, dozens of police vessels are in the waters near the bridge every day, said Natural Resources Police Maj. Michael G. Sewell.

If authorities see something suspicious, they are directed to call the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, said Lt. Col. Stephen T. Moyer, who heads the Maryland State Police homeland security bureau.

The center is staffed at all times and provides communication between local, state and federal authorities. Transportation Authority Police called the center Friday, after the sport utility vehicle with Elbarasse inside was stopped, Schrader said.

At the bridge yesterday, there were no obvious signs of stepped-up security, although some who were crossing or planned to cross it said Friday's arrest made them jittery.

Rene Rowles, a Maryland resident enjoying a picnic with her mother at Sandy Point State Park, said she has long thought the Bay Bridge could be a terror target. She said that she had planned to drive across the bridge today to visit friends but that she would try to find an alternative route.

For Keith Phebus, the 4-mile-long Bay Bridge is the only direct route from his home in Odenton to his job at a Stevensville seafood restaurant.

He says he has to drive across the bridge twice a day, "so there's not much I can do about it."

Sun staff writers Molly Knight and Stephanie Hanes contributed to this article.

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