1. Archive

America becomes bomb scared

Twelve commuters on a bus to St. Petersburg wondered if their darkest nightmare was sitting on the back seat: a small black box with gray wires hanging out.

A month ago it might have gone unnoticed, but on Monday it quickly provoked terror.

"There's a bomb on the bus! There's a bomb!" a man yelled to bus driver Mae Langston.

Langston stopped the bus. Police sirens screamed. Officers with protective vests cordoned off the area.

Thirty minutes later, the "bomb" was resting gently in the hands of a training officer for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. A digital thermometer had been left on the bus, apparently by a mechanic who had used it in a routine service check.

Today, America's collective nerves seem frazzled. In the Tampa Bay area and across the country, fears about suspicious packages and bomb threats appear to be on the rise since the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Olympic bombing.

"We're a little too paranoid here. I'd like to think it will pass soon. But ever since Oklahoma, America's changed," said Bob Schneider, a lumber trader who works in Tampa near the location of Monday's bomb scare.

On Monday alone, Tampa Bay authorities responded to the PSTA bus incident, investigated a bomb threat at WTSP-Ch. 10 and announced that the FBI would join an investigation of several recent bomb theats in Pasco County.

In New York, police in recent days have investigated suspicious packages or bombs threats at the United Nations, Port Authority, Times Square, St. Patrick's Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue.

In Washington, D.C., a downtown office building and health club was evacuated. In Seattle, a concourse at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was closed because of a suspicious package. In Pittsburgh, a floor of the city's tallest building was evacuated after a package with no return address was delivered to an office.

"There's a heightened sense of security," said Gabriel Gabor, a spokesman for Carnival Air Lines, whose flight Monday from New York to San Juan was delayed by the discovery of a suspicious package. "It's part of the big picture."

Monday's commuter-bus incident happened about 5 p.m. when a passenger on a PSTA bus saw what looked to him like a bomb. He notified the driver, Langston, who radioed her dispatcher and evacuated the 12 passengers near downtown Tampa.

"Since that bomb in Atlanta I had been wondering when something like this would happen to me," said Langston.

Five units from Tampa Police Department arrived and cordoned off the area from Florida Avenue to Morgan Street and from Whiting to Washington streets.

Agents from the Tampa police bomb squad then boarded the bus and after 30 minutes removed what was identified as a digital thermometer, a piece of equipment used to service buses, said PSTA training manager Drew Turner.

In St. Petersburg on Monday, more than 100 employees of WTSP-Ch.

10 were evacuated twice after the station received bomb threats, said Mike Cavender, the station's vice president of news.

Two phone calls warning of the bombs were made to a GTE telephone relay station in Lexington, Ky., the first about 11:35 a.m., the second shortly thereafter, Cavender said.

GTE relayed the threats to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which evacuated the station at 11450 Gandy Blvd. No bomb was found and the staff was allowed back in time for the noon news broadcast, he said.

The building was evacuated a second time when the Sheriff's Office learned more detail from the second call that warned thebomb would explode at 4 p.m, Cavender said. The building was evacuated at 3:30 p.m. for 50 minutes. No bomb was found.

In Pasco County, sheriff's officials said Monday they plan to meet with FBI agents and Pinellas County law-enforcement officials today to compare notes on a string of cases in both counties where bomb threats have been used to extort money.

"The FBI is interested and has been assisting us," said Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers. "I would say the extortion angle and the serial nature of the crimes is what led them to become involved."

On Sunday, bomb threats were phoned in to two Pasco County restaurants. In both cases, the bombs turned out to be bricks.

The threats were the fourth and fifth in Pasco since April. All but one of the threats were to businesses and all of the callers sought cash _ from $2,000 to $6,000.

Sunday was the first time phony bombs were planted.

Asked why the callers may have altered their methods, Powers said, "It could be that they didn't get anything before."

_ Information from Times staff writers Amy Ellis and Mike Jackson and the Associated Press was used in this report.