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SEPTA scare blamed on drowsy employee

(The following story by Jere Downs appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on May 25.)

PHILADELPHIA -- Relax, Philadelphia.

The mysterious motion detector found buried along a SEPTA rail line earlier this month was planted not by a terrorist, but by a sleepy electrician trying to get a little shut-eye on the graveyard shift.

The suspicious event turned out to be more Homer Simpson than Osama bin Laden.

"It was in a perfect place if you wanted to get some sleep and be alerted if your boss is coming," SEPTA security chief James B. Jordan said of the sensor at a news conference yesterday. "He knew the route his supervisor would be walking across the yard."

Powered by a nine-volt battery, the Optex 1000 series sensor uses radio waves to transmit an alarm at motion up to 50 feet away. A similar device and a handheld alarm together were offered for sale on the Internet yesterday for about $125.

The longtime union electrician - his name was not disclosed - was apparently chagrined to learn that the device he stowed in gravel near rails in West Philadelphia had set off an FBI investigation, sparked a flurry of media coverage late last week, and jarred SEPTA riders edgy since the Madrid train bombings in March.

So, he turned himself in to the FBI, Jordan said.

"It appears to be a case of employee misconduct rather than a threat of terrorist activity," Jordan said, adding that the worker remained on the job pending an inquiry. "I think he is about to begin taking vacation time immediately."

The electrician had worked the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift, and part of his job was to inspect the trains before the morning commute. But, Jordan said, he also moonlighted part-time for a security firm.

SEPTA is looking into whether the employee had gained required permission to work a second job.

FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams said the agency is investigating whether the SEPTA employee violated the law.

The news came as SEPTA continued to examine how its police department handled the sensor, which was found by a Regional Rail conductor May 5. Far from where the public rides trains, the device was discovered near train storage tracks in the Powelton yard, near 30th Street Station.

The SEPTA police officer who confiscated the device on May 5 inexplicably stowed it in his locker for a week, smearing any possible fingerprints, before turning it over to a SEPTA police special-operations unit on May 12, Jordan said in an interview. SEPTA then immediately alerted the Philadelphia police bomb squad and the FBI.

"The officer did not perceive the device as a threat," SEPTA Police Chief Richard Evans said, adding that the agency was looking into whether to discipline the officer.

On Thursday, the federal Transportation Security Administration issued a set of safety guidelines to passenger-rail agencies nationwide. SEPTA greeted that announcement with assurances that the agency already complied with most of the security practices recommended.

No package or device found in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks has proved to be a terrorist threat to riders, Jordan said. Nonetheless, two incidents yesterday disrupted SEPTA service.

The discovery of what turned out to be someone's lunch on a Regional Rail platform resulted in the evacuation of Suburban Station for an hour shortly after the morning commute, Jordan said. Beginning at 2:30 p.m., an abandoned duffel bag at the 11th Street station of the Market-Frankford Line prompted the shutdown of the heavily traveled rail line for about an hour.

"Those incidents show how seriously we respond," Jordan said.

The employee's indiscretion, he added, "is important because incidents like this frighten people. They add to a sense that it is an unsafe world out there."

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

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