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Scare empties Union Station

(The following story by David A. Fahrenthold appeared on the Washington Post website on April 6.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Union Station was evacuated for half an hour yesterday afternoon, and train service on Amtrak and Metro lines was briefly halted, while police examined a suspicious backpack in the station's main hall.

The unattended backpack, which gave off a petroleum smell, was later found to contain a leaking can of lighter fluid, authorities said. The station, which was cleared at 12:45 p.m., reopened about 1:15.

The evacuation roused hundreds of people, including tour groups and traveling families who were forced to wait on a blustery plaza while fire trucks and police cars filled Columbus Circle.

"We were eating lunch downstairs," said Ruth Morgan, who was visiting Washington with her family from Battle Creek, Mich. "Somebody came running up to us and said, 'They're evacuating!' "

Authorities said that the backpack was found just inside the station's front doors, leaning against a planter that sections off a seating area for the restaurant America. Amtrak police first set up a perimeter around the backpack with yellow tape, then ordered the evacuation of the station.

The backpack was examined by a bomb squad from the U.S. Capitol Police. It was found to contain T-shirts, a jar of Noxzema cleanser, and the can of lighter fluid, said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. The backpack's owner was not found, Etter said.

Amtrak trains that were in the station were evacuated, and trains approaching Washington were told to wait until the evacuation was over, a spokesman said.

Metrorail train service to Union Station was halted for about nine minutes, a spokeswoman said.

An Amtrak spokesman said that it was the most extensive evacuation of Union Station since the March 11 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid. That attack, which killed nearly 200 people, led to heightened security at rail stations throughout the United States.

Some visitors to Washington found yesterday's experience jarring. Beverly Sanches, of Winchester, Va., was waiting for a train when she heard sirens and a voice over the loudspeaker announcing the evacuation.

"It freaked me out, really," Sanches said. She said she had to wait outside with her two sons, one of whom was very upset.

"I wouldn't want to live here," Sanches said afterward.

But yesterday's events were nothing new for Heidi Stewart, who staffs the Old Town Trolley booth in the station's main hall. Stewart, who had a view of the backpack when police were first puzzling over it, said she had been evacuated several times for other scares in recent weeks.

"I think a lot of tourist people got excited," she said after yesterday's ordeal. "The people that work here, we just kind of moseyed out."

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

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