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Amtrak train evacuated due to suspicious parcel

(The following article by Matthew Moriarty was posted on the Pilot website on June 23.)

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- A suspicious package forced the evacuation of an Amtrak train headed north through Southern Pines on Thursday morning.

The package turned out to be harmless, but there were some tense moments between 7:30 a.m. when the train first stopped, and about 10:15 a.m. when passengers reboarded the train.

Between those times, passengers milled around the Southern Pines Depot and the Sunrise Theater while authorities waited for the bomb squad from Fort Bragg to arrive. After the train was evacuated, it was moved farther north out of town.

Later in the morning, a television news helicopter hovered above downtown Southern Pines.

The train conductor, Shelia Andrews, who declined to comment, called Southern Pines police when she found an unclaimed package with no tags in the passenger area after the train had made its regular stop in Southern Pines.

About an hour later, at 8:30 a.m., the passengers were instructed to disembark.

"They woke me up and said, ‘evacuate the train,’" said Deidre Smith of Raleigh.

This is the second time in three weeks that security concerns have caused a disruption in the area.

In early June, Southern Pines police briefly detained two Pakistani men who had been acting suspiciously at the Moore County Airport. After questioning by the FBI, they were released.

Amtrak procedure in this situation calls for the train to be evacuated and pulled out of the downtown area.

"It’s a precautionary measure," said Tracy Connell, an Amtrak spokesperson in the Washington, D.C., office.

After the train was moved just north of Yadkin Road, Southern Pines police officers and firefighters waited for the U.S. Army squad.

"We’re handling this as a suspicious package," said Southern Pines Police Detective Lt. Rodney Hardy at the time. "We don’t know what it is. It could be nothing, but we don’t want to take that chance. We’re taking all the precautions right now."

Meanwhile, the Sunrise Theater opened and provided passengers a place to sit out of the sun, get some water and use the bathroom. A short time later, Moore County Emergency Medical Services and the American Red Cross arrived to help the passengers and provide some snacks.

"The Red Cross has been really helpful," Smith said.

The overlying mood among the passengers was one of bewilderment and irritation. They were not given any indication of why leaving the train was necessary.

"They won’t say nothing to nobody," said Jay Benoit of New York.

He was sitting in the shade outside the depot. He had just been to Disney World and was heading home.

"We’re going all the way to New York," he said. "We just want to go home."

Some of the passengers made the best of the situation and took the time to stroll around downtown Southern Pines. They had been told that it would be about 90 minutes before they could get back under way.

"We love your town," said Demany Vinson of Baltimore.

He got on the train at West Palm Beach in Florida. Vinson, who was on crutches, sat down under the Sunrise marquee.

"It’s a little strange and bizarre," he said.

When told that authorities were looking at a suspicious package, he said that was the rumor that had been spreading through the crowd.

"I kind of figured that it was one of those Sept. 11 issues," he said. "That’s kind of the word that’s been spreading. Overall, it’s still better safe than sorry."

Across Broad Street, Smith sat with her friend, Anne Akpo-Sanni. They were on the way to Raleigh.

It’s the second time they’ve had a problem on an Amtrak train, Akpo-Sanni said. The first occurred when the train broke down and the passengers had to walk down the tracks to the next stop.

Sitting and not knowing what was going on was the hardest part, they said.

"We probably would feel better if we knew what is going on," Akpo-Sanni said. "I think everyone should get their money back."

But when told that there was a suspicious package on the train, they changed their tune.

"In that case, I’d be thankful," Akpo-Sanni said.

"Yeah," Smith said. "I’d be glad they’re investigating thoroughly."

The Fort Bragg bomb squad arrived between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.

Dressed in camouflage, they instructed the Southern Pines police to close May Street for the length of the train while they searched it.

During the search, a passenger who had gotten off in Hamlet claimed the parcel. Shortly after 10 a.m., the train backed up to the depot and the passengers boarded.

Said Lt. Hardy: "The scare was over."

Friday, June 24, 2005

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