BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE AND LIZ GOFF
Traffic slammed to a grinding halt on both sides of the Whitestone Bridge this week when a “suspicious-looking” white truck became the focus of police attention, and a symbol of a borough on edge by warnings of terrorist activity and heightened security status.
Police stopped and searched a “suspicious” white truck on the Whitestone Bridge on Feb. 12.
The truck, which was stopped and searched by members of the NYPD’s Bomb Squad on Feb. 12, ended up being legally owned and filled with cardboard boxes, according to police, who shut down the bridge for more than an hour to investigate and check for explosives.
The incident, which ended in no arrests, was evidence of a borough watched closely by tightened security after the announcement on Feb. 7 that the nation’s security level was being moved up to “orange alert,” the second highest in a series of levels.
Since then, reports of threats to bridges and tunnels, skyscrapers and the subway system have hit close to home, with everyone from Queens straphangers to top police brass feeling the heat.
Braving Terror Below Ground
When Flushing resident Maira Cheng woke up for work on Feb. 10 to the sounds of news radio on her alarm clock, the first thing she heard was a report on possible terrorist threats to the New York City subway system.
The Queensborough Bridge is being “constantly patrolled,” one high ranking police official told the Tribune.
Her response: “Who cares? Get to the transit report.”
Cheng was one of many Queens straphangers who braved the reported threats and headed below ground to take the subway to work this week, ignoring security color charts and “credible threats” pointing towards terrorist activity in the New York City area.
Cheng told the Tribune while waiting for the 7 train at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, “I heard the reports, and I just ignored them. What are we going to do, change our entire lifestyle? I won’t let them do that. I trust the cops. They’ll keep us safe.”
NYPD Deputy Inspector Salvatore Di Pace, head of the Patrol Borough Queens North Counterterrorism Unit, told the Tribune this week that “The NYPD sends cops into subway stations, entrances and exits to perform routine patrols. But the crux of enforcement on the subway system is performed by City Transit cops.”
Some Queens subway riders felt uneasy during their commute following reports that the subway system was a potential terror target.
“We are below and above the subways,” Di Pace added. “Transit cops are in the center of the action.”
National Guardsmen are riding the subways this week, armed with high-powered weapons and dogs from their K-9 Unit, officials said.
At the busy transportation hub of the 74th Street-Roosevelt station in Jackson Heights, Queens commuters waiting for the bus or train had mixed responses, but many expressed an intangible fear about what is to come.
A former veteran of the Persian Gulf war and current Jackson Heights interior designer Peter Dellaquila said, “You always have to be concerned, there’s nothing you can really do. You have to be wary, but at the same time, you have to keep living your life. Otherwise this would be a country of paranoia.”
Concern From The Top
Several hours after President George W. Bush announced the security increase, a shocked Borough President Helen Marshall told the Tribune that she hadn’t heard the news. She said, “I hadn’t heard that. I’m running around like a crazy person today . . . Obviously, we have been on a heightened level of security since Sept. 11. I know as far as my office is concerned, we’ve been cautious since then.”
Later in the week, Marshall’s spokesperson Dan Andrews said that security has been beefed up at Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, and added that Marshall was scheduled to meet with the Police Department to discuss safety issues at the building.
Andrews added that Marshall is “confident in the safety of Queens residents,” and said, “The Borough President is of course asking residents to be careful and to report any possible activity directly to the authorities. No one should panic. Don’t run out and buy duct tape and crazy things like that. Just remain cautious.”
Top Cops Talk Terror
Di Pace said “What many people do not realize is that Queens remains on Level 2 Orange Alert after Sept. 11.”
“Queens never moved from an Orange Alert,” Di Pace added. “We have been and we are prepared to meet any emergency.”
Di Pace and Deputy Inspector Gary Sirica – his counterpart in Patrol Borough Queens South – were assigned to the new unit last month. It is the first new unit created by the NYPD in 30 years.
“Our mission,” Sirica said, “is to prevent acts of terrorism before they occur.”
Patrol Borough Queens North Commander, Asst. Chief James Tuller, said the borough command “does not have any specific, credible threat in Queens.” Still, he added, “That does not mean that they won’t hit us to distract from Manhattan. And while the City’s resources are here, they would hit Manhattan.”
Queens’ Prime Targets
The NYPD has established a three-tier system of ranking sites that are considered sensitive to terrorist attacks, Di Pace said. Sites are designated to levels based on a series of criteria, including the volume of people who travel through the location, Di Pace said.
“Level One” sites are considered the most sensitive and the highest risk, officials said. Queens’ prime locations include The Midtown Tunnel, LaGuardia Airport and the Triboro Bridge, all “Priority-One” locations, officials said.
The Queensborough Bridge and the Citicorp Tower are both listed as “Priority-Two” locations, and are among the most highly-patrolled sites in the borough, officials said.
“The Queensborough Bridge is constantly patrolled by the NYPD,” Di Pace said. “The span does not have an authority like the MTA or the Triboro Bridge and Transit Authority (TBTA) that looks after it – so it is patrolled by police in Queens and Manhattan, and there are constant National Guard patrols there,” Di Pace said.
Level One sites are protected with a large number of patrols, directed patrols and with far more uniform presence than other sites, Di Pace said. Level Two sites are heavily patrolled. They are “dedicated patrol sites,” (meaning that a team of officers is assigned to a specific post at all hours and they are closely monitored for activity).
Level One and Two sites include tunnels, financial centers (Citicorp), power utilities, transit lines and “hubs” and sports centers, Di Pace said.
Queens Buildings At Risk
The 51-story Citicorp Tower is considered highly sensitive for its location, demographics and because it is a high-powered financial institution, Di Pace and Sirica said.
Citicorp officials declined to comment on the designation, but said they have established a private security system since Sept. 11 to protect the 5,000 people who work in the tower.
Sources speaking on condition of anonymity said there have been at least three credible terrorist threats made towards the building since Sept. 11, 2001. Apartment complexes such as the Lefrak Houses and local hotels are currently listed as Level-One sites, officials said.
Protecting Points of Entry
Passengers at LaGuardia and JFK International Airports are urged to be especially cautious and alert while waiting on lines at airport terminals, Port Authority officials said.
Port Authority police officers are “highly visible” at the airports, patrolling alongside K-9 cops and National Guardsmen, said P.A. spokesperson Mike Marshall.
“But the airports are a perfect setting for identity theft,” Marshall said. “Travelers are urged to stay alert and know where their wallets, passports and other personal items are at all times.”
The Transportation Security Administration has beefed-up security measures at the airports. Passengers are urged to allow extra time for check-in, since increased perimeter security has reduced available parking spaces by 900 at LaGuardia and “about” 500 at JFK Airport, Marshall said.
Preparing For The Worst
Fire officials said local engine companies and Queens’ specialized response units train regularly and are able to handle “any emergency.”
The Counterterrorism Unit is also scheduling a series of community meetings, where officials and the public can interact on issues, discuss incidents and response, and foster an understanding of the unit’s operation – and how the community can help the NYPD by acting as its “eyes and ears” in local situations, officials said.
— Susan Lee contributed to this story.