Commercial traffic's close watch Ships, trains viewed as potential arms : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Commercial traffic's close watch Ships, trains viewed as potential arms

Bernadette Tansey, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 19, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Coast Guard commanders and other public safety authorities in California are going through a tense exercise in the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks.

They are reimagining ordinary vehicles of commerce -- such as oil tankers, shipping containers and commuter trains -- as potential weapons of mass destruction. And they're doing their best to disarm them.

The conversion of four U.S. passenger jets into deadly missiles expanded the scope of the possible for government and industry officials, who took a new look at anything that could explode, fuel a fire or otherwise injure masses of people.

To prevent the use of huge commercial vessels as floating bombs, the Coast Guard is taking unprecedented precautions. For days after the attacks, it held all large ships -- including U.S. flagged ships -- 12 miles outside the Golden Gate for boarding by officers doing heightened inspections. Pairs of armed Coast Guard escorts are now stationed on the bridge of some large ships as they sail in and out of port in the Bay Area, to make sure no invaders gain control.

"They were concerned someone might commandeer the vessel and steer it into the bridge, or even crash the vessel into a pier," said Harold Jones, a spokesman for the Port of Oakland.

Onshore, security guards are stopping every vehicle at the Port of Oakland to check drivers' identification, and company officials have begun "gangway watches" to monitor who is getting on and off every vessel.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, fear reached into the most routine corners of everyday life. BART officers swept cars looking for suspicious people and packages, nuclear plants stepped up security and the Highway Patrol ran surveillance flights over the California Aqueduct.

"In order to survive, you have to think the unthinkable," said BART spokesman Ron Rodriguez. "You can't be squeamish; you have to be almost ghoulish."

Officials emphasize that they have received no alerts indicating that any Bay Area site has been identified as a terrorist target. Still, the Coast Guard called up reserve officers to maintain a strict ship inspection regimen while last week's attacks are investigated.

"Who's to know what the next target or the next mode of delivering that target will be?" said Cmdr. Pete Neffenger, executive officer of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office for San Francisco Bay.

Inspectors are taking a close look, not only at the oil tankers, container ships and cruise liners streaming into the bay, but also at their crews, said Cmdr. Steven Boyle, chief of inspections at Coast Guard Island at Alameda.

Big ships routinely carry flammable fuels and hazardous chemicals near densely populated areas. That might make them attractive to terrorists, but such a ship would be harder to seize and control than a passenger jet, Boyle said.

"A ship can only navigate in certain channels or it runs aground," he said. "An airplane goes about anywhere."

Ship cargoes are also under heightened scrutiny by the U.S. Customs Service,

but spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner declined to describe the exact measures inspectors are taking to check sealed containers and other freight.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, BART "buttoned up" its Oakland headquarters to protect staff and computer train controls, Rodriguez said. All visitors had to be escorted, and package delivery was suspended.

The main concerns are explosives and chemical contaminants at BART, which sponsored a nationwide conference on transit terrorism in 1997, after a Japanese cult released a deadly nerve agent in the Tokyo subway system.

Rest rooms were quickly locked after last week's attacks, "because bad guys can do strange things in rest rooms, like put together things or hide things," Rodriguez said.

The rest rooms have since been reopened and package delivery has resumed, but all other heightened security measures remain in effect. Trains are being held an extra 40 seconds for checks by patrol officers before they enter the transbay tube.

The new world of identity checks, transit slowdowns and heavy surveillance may last months or longer as the nation remains on a war footing, said Mike Guerin, chief of law enforcement for the governor's Office of Emergency Services. How to pay for it, and how much freedom should be surrendered for it,

will soon be the subject of debate, he said.

"We're not in a position to sound the all-clear siren," Guerin said. "That all-clear siren has not been sounded and may not sound for some time."

Chronicle staff writers Henry K. Lee, Tyche Hendricks and Rick DelVecchio contributed to this report. / E-mail Bernadette Tansey at

-- Martin Thompson (, September 19, 2001


It sounds like the entire country is getting paranoid.

-- Enigma (, September 20, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ