Copyright 1994 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
December 24, 1994, Saturday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 1; Page 29; Column 4; Metropolitan Desk
LENGTH: 879 words
HEADLINE: A Nervous City Sees Bombs Everywhere
BYLINE: By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Just before rush hour yesterday, a security guard spotted a briefcase sitting atop two cardboard boxes outside a luggage store at Five World Trade Center. Wary, the guard called 911 to report a suspicious leather bag, and the police summoned the bomb squad.
As the squad raced to the scene, sirens carving a path through commuter traffic, an absent-minded businessman returned to the luggage store and retrieved his briefcase, which, it turned out, contained nothing more perilous than a Bible and a laptop computer.
That potential crisis had barely fizzled, however, when the police received another 911 call about a suspicious package, this one lodged between two turnstiles near the tracks of the PATH Station at Sixth Avenue and 32d Street.
The PATH station was closed for half an hour, and again, nothing was found. Commuters remained calm, if eager to start the holiday weekend.
But the nervous, impulsive calls spoke volumes about the jitters that have swept the city following Wednesday's firebombing of a subway car at Fulton Street. On Thursday, for instance, the police responded 46 times to calls about suspicious packages and the like, none of which were dangerous. The usual number of such calls is about 10 a day.
"We're concerned about the increase in work caused by skittish people," said John Timoney, the Police Department's Chief of Department. "But we're also concerned about copycats. I'm afraid of the loser type looking for 15 minutes of fame."
The police are encouraging people to be alert. But they are also concerned about nervous citizens summoning the 36-member bomb squad away from genuine emergencies.
The squad has been forced to respond to hundreds of false alarms since a mail bomb killed an advertising executive in North Caldwell, N.J., two weeks ago. And calls have escalated since the fireball erupted on the southbound Manhattan No. 4 train, set off, police suspect, by Edward J. Leary, a disgruntled unemployed man who wanted to hold the city hostage.
On the average day, amid all the reports of shootings, wife beatings and fender-benders that crackle over the 911 police emergency telephone, a report of a bomb threat or suspicious package comes almost every two hours. But the number increased to a daily average of 17 after the New Jersey explosion. And on the day of the subway firebombing, false alarms rose to 35, with 46 on Thursday and at least 20 more by early yesterday evening.
Late Thursday, Transit Authority employees working on the G Line in Brooklyn got a scare when an anonymous man called a transit booth on Java Street saying he would blow up the subway if authorities did not release his brother. It turned out to be a crank call.
"Everybody has been on their toes of late," said Joe Rosco, the security manager at 780 Third Avenue, where a security guard called the police after he found a briefcase outside a gourmet store at 7:50 A.M. yesterday. "We are all very careful."
Not one of the hundreds of calls has been anything serious. But a few have been disruptive. No one was allowed to enter or leave the Third Avenue building for two hours yesterday until the bomb squad arrived, for example.
And on Monday, after a suspicious-looking box was found in Port Richmond High School on Staten Island, the school was evacuated. The police found a harmless box wired to look like a bomb.
In all, there were at least 10 bomb threats or reports of possible explosive devices around the city's subway system yesterday without any major disruptions in service. And in one case yesterday morning, a loud pop under the seat of an uptown subway car near Broadway and 168th Street in Washington Heights frightened passengers until transit repairmen declared it nothing more than a blown fuse.
"You have to respond to everything," said Michael Amarosa, the Police Department Director of Communications, who oversees 911 service. "That's the only way to treat this."
Police officials noted that the Christmas season has traditionally been a time when bomb threats proliferate. In 1982, bombs set by the Puerto Rican F.A.L.N. separatist group exploded on New Year's Eve outside four government buildings in New York City, including Police Headquarters.
But security precautions this holiday season have still not reached the level that followed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or the bombing at the World Trade Center, when the police bolstered the bomb squad by temporarily rehiring retired members.
Anticipating possible copycat bombers or even another strike in the Unabom serial letter bombings, the Police Department last week assembled 300 business and university executives at Police Headquarters for a briefing from experts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Immediately after Wednesday's subway incident, the police stepped up security around scores of religious and government buildings around the city. But once the Police Department was satisfied that Mr. Leary, the 49-year-old Scotch Plains, N.J., man arrested for the subway firebombing, had operated alone, security details were decreased.
Nevertheless, Police Chief Timoney yesterday expressed concern that all the false alarms would "drain our resources." GRAPHIC: Photo: The police have responded to a rash of bomb scares after the firebombing of a subway car. Members of the bomb squad investigated the report of a suspicious briefcase outside a store at 780 Third Avenue yesterday. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)