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Penn Station evacuated after bomb threat

(The following article by Andrea Elliott and Thomas J. Lueck was posted on the New York Times website on July 25.)

NEW YORK -- A man who falsely claimed to have a bomb in his bag prompted the authorities to evacuate Pennsylvania Station for more than an hour yesterday, causing delays for travelers across the Northeast and punctuating a tiresome week of increased security in New York City's subway stations.

During a dispute with an Amtrak ticket agent, the man, whom the police identified as Raul Claudio, 43, of the Bronx, placed a bag on a ticket counter and said a bomb was inside, the police said. The threat was unsubstantiated, but caused personnel including National Guardsmen in military fatigues to clear the station just after noon.

"When we were in line, he said he had a bomb in the bag," said a woman who had accompanied Mr. Claudio to the station who would identify herself only as Milagros, 46. She said that Mr. Claudio, who was pulling a suitcase on wheels, had become upset when the ticket agent could not retrieve his reservation.

Mr. Claudio has had repeated run-ins with the law, including convictions for at least two drug offenses, according to Barbara Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's office. He was at Penn Station intending to travel to a drug treatment program near Albany, his lawyer and three acquaintances said.

The city's bomb squad determined that there was no bomb in the bag, but Mr. Claudio was arrested and charged with two felonies: making a terroristic threat and falsely reporting an incident, the authorities said. Each count carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years in prison. He was held in $15,000 bail.

At his arraignment at Manhattan criminal court last night, Mr. Claudio was described by the prosecution as having a criminal history that dates back to 1979. His court-appointed lawyer, Joshua A. Benjamin, said his client, whom he described as addicted to crack cocaine, had "a colorful past."

"Mr. Claudio is a not a terrorist, not even almost a terrorist," Mr. Benjamin said, adding that only in a post-9/11 climate would Mr. Claudio's comment result in his arrest.

After the threat, officers shouted for people to evacuate, sending hundreds of luggage-toting travelers outside into the noon sun, but the commotion was met with more indifference than alarm. People clung to the periphery of Penn Station, hardly bothered by the reports of a bomb threat. For many, it was just another day in a new world of heightened vigilance.

So calm were the crowds during the evacuation that police officers had to order them repeatedly to move away from the station and onto nearby streets.

"It was pretty boring," said Jim Thummel, 65, a tourist from Pullman, Wash., who was heading to Boston with a troupe of grandchildren.

For Robert Horacek, 48, the evacuation was "a minor annoyance." Mr. Horacek, a travel writer who lives in Boston, was stopped from entering the station by an Amtrak agent who repeatedly told him, "We're evacuating." The news caused Mr. Horacek scant concern: he crossed Seventh Avenue and watched the commotion for 45 minutes while leaning against a wall, he said.

"It's what's going on now," he said. "It wouldn't be right to allow those things to stop me from living my life the way I want to live my life."

In a separate false alarm about a half-hour earlier, the police stopped and boarded a double-decker tour bus on 51st Street between Eighth Avenue and Broadway after a supervisor for the bus company, Gray Line, reported that five men with backpacks and stuffed pockets had raised her suspicions.

The 60 sightseers on the bus were all asked to step off, and the five men in question were handcuffed and searched, the police said. None were found to pose a threat, they said.

Both incidents come on the heels of increased security throughout the city, where the police began randomly searching the belongings of subway riders on Thursday.

At the Amtrak ticket counter yesterday, Mr. Claudio threw a sandwich in a bag against a wall and left the line after the agent could not find his reservation, "and then he got more mad," said Milagros, who said she was his former girlfriend.

After he entered a different line, he was taken aside for questioning by the police. She said that she did not hear him make a threat to a ticket agent, but that people in the line may have heard his earlier remark to her about a bomb in his bag, though she knew he was not serious. "His mouth always gets him into trouble," she said.

Officers escorted her outside, where "they asked me a whole bunch of times what he had in the bag," she said. "It was clothes."

When Mr. Claudio was arrested, he gave an address on Honeywell Avenue in East Tremont, Ms. Thompson said. That address corresponds to one listed for Mr. Claudio in state Department of Motor Vehicles records, but Ms. Thompson said that it was unclear whether he had been living there recently, and that he was believed to have been homeless for periods.

"Drugs got him going crazy," said Clara McFadden, 57, a resident of the East Tremont building. "He's got a temper."

Ms. McFadden said that she was acquainted with Mr. Claudio and his history of drug abuse, and that he had recently fallen back after a period of stability with little or no drug use. On Friday, she said, Mr. Claudio visited her, showed her a document that confirmed his appointment at the Albany drug program.

State prison records show that he was sent to prison for at least one of his drug offenses and was paroled on Sept. 14, 2001, after serving about two years of what would have been a maximum five-year sentence. His record of driver's license suspensions is extensive, listing offenses since 1997 of failure to pay child support, failure to pay fines and failure to answer summons.

It is not clear when the evacuation at Pennsylvania Station began, but it appeared to happen in waves, with the station empty by about 12:45 p.m. Not everyone reacted calmly. Krystal Colon, 22, climbed over the bar she tends at T.G.I. Friday's after an officer in camouflage ordered everyone out of the restaurant, she said.

"I was scared at first because the guy was screaming," she said. "But once we got outside I was fine."

Nick Naifeh, 16, of Edmond, Okla., was separated from his parents and two brothers for about half an hour during the evacuation. "I got out as fast as I could," he said.

The station was reopened at 1:24 p.m., delaying Amtrak trains between New York and Philadelphia from six minutes to slightly more than an hour, a spokeswoman said. Spokesmen for the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit said service to and from Pennsylvania Station was halted for about an hour. Eight New Jersey Transit trains were affected.

It was unclear how many travelers were affected by the delays, but the threat happened during a light travel period, said Dan Stessel, the New Jersey Transit spokesman.

"If it occurred on a weekday rush hour, the impact would have been much greater," he said.

New Jersey Transit passengers whose trains were stopped because of the evacuation were offered a free transfer at Newark to PATH trains bound for Manhattan, he said.

Though the incident yesterday proved to be only a scare, it gave many people pause. "It doesn't make you feel safe when there is a possibility that you could be blown up," said Joseph Davide, 22, as he waited at the Massapequa station of the Long Island Rail Road amid announcements that train service had been stopped. "But you can't stop taking the train, either."

Angela Macropoulos, Colin Moynihan and Matthew Sweeney contributed reporting for this article.

Monday, July 25, 2005

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