Tighter Security Felt Across U.S.
Thursday, September 12, 2002

The American public found out yesterday what it means when the White House warns of a high risk of terrorist attack: more security -- and more jitters -- at airports, seaports, borders, malls, amusement parks and other well-traveled places.

On a day when millions of people paused to remember the events of last Sept. 11, law enforcement agencies and private security forces were more visible than usual and more inclined to react to any suspicious behavior. Coupled with the emotions generated by the anniversary itself, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's decision Tuesday to raise the the nation's terror alert index to its second highest-level created an edgy feeling in many places.

Two commercial flights were diverted during the day, a foreign ship was put out to sea awaiting additional inspection and a 41-story office tower that houses the Ohio Supreme Court was evacuated after a deliveryman allegedly declared that he was looking for a place to hide a bomb. Ohio officials said they later found materials that could be used to make a bomb in the man's van, which was parked at a loading dock. He was arrested and charged with inducing a panic.

The first airplane incident unfolded yesterday morning on a Northwest Airlines flight from Memphis to Las Vegas. According to several officials, passengers and flight attendants became suspicious during the flight when three dark-complected men began going into and out of a lavatory, one at a time, in quick succession. They appeared to be carrying a shaving kit and passengers were concerned that the men were shaving or passing razors around, sources said.

Flight attendants related their concerns and "the pilot decided to divert the plane as a precaution," according to a statement from Northwest Airlines. He landed at a regional airport in Fort Smith, Ark., where four men were detained by the FBI, and the other 90 passengers left the plane without incident. Three of the men were charged last night with interfering with a flight crew, a federal offense, and the fourth man was released, authorities said.

The three were identified as Havinder Singh, 41; Alaaeldin Adbelsalam, 37, and Gurdeep Wander, 48. Other details remained sketchy last night.

In the second incident, an American Airlines flight from Houston to Dallas returned to Bush Intercontinental Airport yesterday afternoon when a flight attendant saw a passenger wielding what she thought was a knife or straight razor. It turned out to be a folding comb, officials said.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, ordered a container ship in Port Elizabeth, N.J., back out to sea after sensors detected apparent traces of radioactivity in its cargo. The Liberian-flagged ship was moved about six miles off the coast while the FBI and Coast Guard made plans to extensively search its 655 containers. Authorities said they had not yet determined what triggered the sensors.

The FBI was seeking a place to dock the ship so the containers can be inspected. Authorities were reluctant to do the inspection at a commercial port. Sources said one container was marked on the manifest as holding Iranian rugs.

Throughout the country, authorities were exerting extra caution. The Customs Service stepped up its inspections at places such as the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, the busiest commercial border crossing in the nation. Inspectors more closely examined contents of commercial trucks and passenger vehicles and spent more time interviewing drivers and examining paperwork, officials said. Despite the additional scrutiny, no significant delays were reported. Many police departments put extra officers in uniform yesterday.

"All I know is that orange to me means, 'get ready,' " said Bill Berger, head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "I get ready by spending money that I don't have," said Berger, chief of police in North Miami Beach.

In the Washington area, Pentagon officials said they had loaded missiles into antiaircraft batteries as they bolstered air defenses. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the live Stinger missiles moved out of storage and positioned with launchers at the Pentagon and other locations after the terror warning was issued. Security was noticeably tighter at public places such as Walt Disney World, where additional uniformed security officers were on duty; the Sears Tower, where Chicago police and private security forces increased patrols; and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the nation's largest shopping center. Officials said crowds appeared about average and reported no problems.

Officials in some cities said many people chose to stay home yesterday. Ridership of the Washington Metro was down about 4.8 percent from last Wednesday. Traffic was reported lighter in Detroit and other places.

Airports and airlines reported an unusually quiet day, with less than half the usual number of passengers in terminals and planes. "Given what today is . . . everyone is extra vigilant," a government source said, adding that a Department of Transportation call center was swamped with tips from passengers and flight crews.

Airlines at the region's three airports yesterday cut 90 flights, or 6 percent and 10 percent of their daily schedules, because of reduced air travel.

Staff writers Sara Kehaulani Goo, Lyndsey Layton, Bradley Graham, Susan Schmidt and Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.

 

 


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