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BART bomb scare snarls a.m. commute

(The following story by Sean Holstege appeared on the Oakland Tribune website on March 24.)

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A BART groundskeeper's vigilance Tuesday served as textbook terrorism prevention in what's being called the "post-3-11 world," but his discovery of a case under the ivy at San Leandro Station delayed 20,000 train passengers.

The 8:38 a.m. discovery was more than suspicious. The hard attache case, with warning stickers on the outside, was purposefully buried under vegetation next to the power station for BART's overhead tracks. The case later turned out to contain a satellite telephone. Cell phones are commonly used in the Middle East to set off bombs.

The discovery came on the day a U.S. Senate committee considered ways to protect American public transit riders from the carnage caused by bombs on trains in Madrid, Spain, on March 11.

A day before the BART bomb scare, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced plans to improve train security by deploying rapid-response, bomb-sniffing dog teams and launching an experiment to screen luggage for Amtrak passengers.

BART was already on high alert, but it took until 9:45 a.m. for the Alameda County Bomb Squad to arrive at San Leandro station. By 10:30 a.m., the county's explosives experts X-rayed the case and decided to blow it up as a precaution.

At that point, BART closed the station and police evacuated the immediate area. Children at nearby Woodrow Wilson Elementary School and St. Leander School and mourners attending a funeral at the adjacent St. Leander Catholic Church were told to stay indoors. The procession had to wait half an hour.

Embalmer Frank Vasconcellos, who was directing the funeral, said one woman attending the service had fainting spells.

Five AC Transit lines into the nearby BART station were disrupted -- Routes 55, 80, 81, 84 and 85. San Leandro police officers directed traffic after closing sections of Davis Street and San Leandro, Estudillo and Juana avenues.

BART stopped southbound trains at Coliseum Station and northbound trains at Bayfair Station, setting up a bus bridge to get stranded train passengers where they were going.

But AC Transit officials said the bus agency wasn't informed that BART needed its help until 11 a.m. By then, hundreds of BART passengers were getting grumpy.

"There's no organization to this at all," groused Fremont-bound John Kulczycki, stuck in the crowd that was growing outside Coliseum Station. "Where's the BART police? They talk about making all these cuts and stuff. Well, we pay for it in the long run."

Others viewed the events as part of the modern age.

"Better safe than sorry," said John Fordham, who was among the hordes crowding around a bus. "This kind of thing is to be expected."

Throughout the East Bay, delays of 20 to 30 minutes were developing.

There was never any fear of losing power at the station. After learning of the mysterious case, BART shut down the substation and re-routed power.

The bomb squad detonated the case at 11:45 a.m. and BART instantly restored service. By then, police had given Vasconcellos permission to proceed with the funeral. "People in the procession heard the explosion. It was very loud," he said.

BART police continue to investigate the incident under the theory that the satellite phone may have been stolen. In the meantime BART will debrief the incident, and officials said Tuesday that it was handled by the book.

"I didn't feel a direct sense of urgency to close the station right away," said BART Police Lt. Gary Gagaanan, the incident commander, noting there had been no phoned-in bomb threat. But the incident did raise heartbeats because a typical alert involves an absent-minded passenger who leaves something on a train or platform.

BART spokesman Mike Healy, Gagaanan and others said the response followed standard procedures, which did not waiver because of any post-Madrid jitters.

"Everybody did what they had to do. The response by all the participating agencies was by the numbers," Gagaanan said.

(Staff writers Chris DeBenedetti and Douglas Fischer contributed to this report.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

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