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Security worries change how railroad handles lost and found

(The Stamford Advocate posted the following article by Gabrielle Birkner on its website on April 13.)

STAMFORD, Conn. -- In the explosions that ripped through commuter trains and killed nearly 200 people in Spain last month, cell phones were used as detonating devices for some of the bombs.

Cell phone detonators are terrorists' "obvious method of choice," said Brynnen Hahn of Stamford, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer and counterterrorism expert.

"If they're trying it over there, they're going to try it over here," Hahn said. "You don't try to reinvent the wheel every time you make a bomb."

On Metro-North Railroad, security concerns have led to increased scrutiny of cell phones, which are among the most common items commuters leave behind on trains and in stations, said Michael Nolan, manager of the MTA Metro-North Lost & Found at Grand Central Terminal.

More than 2,000 phones and other items end up in the lost and found each year, Nolan said, and they are checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, X-ray machines and inspectors.

"You just can't use enough caution," said Nolan, who has headed the facility since 1998.

Most items are returned to their owners, but hundreds of unclaimed cell phones and other items languish in gray bins in the lost and found.

Abandoned cell phones are one of many concerns that MTA police deal with each day, Deputy Chief Sean McLaughlin said, but he knows of no instances in which officers have been confronted with one rigged to detonate explosives. All abandoned items are considered potential threats, he said.

"Those items that look suspicious are isolated, and we bring in a canine trained for bombs to (search) the item or package," McLaughlin said.

Less suspicious items found on trains, such as books, umbrellas and gloves -- even oddities such as false teeth, an urn filled with ashes and an inflatable canoe -- are hand-searched by MTA inspectors who scour the trains and stations. Conductors, coach cleaners and passengers also turn in items.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the railroad has adopted stricter measures for handling lost and abandoned items, Nolan said. The terminal's parcel room -- where travelers once left their luggage while they toured the city -- has been shut down.

About 80 percent of the 18,000 items found each year are returned to their owners, Nolan said. Lost objects often are donated or thrown out after 90 days, though more valuable items can be kept up to three years.

Any object recovered is tagged according to when and where it was retrieved, including the number of the train or whether it was under a seat or on a luggage rack. The information is entered into desktop computer databases, though inspectors soon will get hand-held devices so it can be logged on the spot.

"We're always finding strange things," Metro-North spokesman Dan Brucker said. "Prosthetic limbs, glass eyeballs -- you put it all together and you can almost get a whole human being."

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

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