- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

BALTIMORE — Maryland transportation officials closed sections of Interstate 95 and two tunnels underneath Baltimore’s harbor late yesterday morning because of a threat that an explosive-laden vehicle would blow up one of the tunnels.

The Harbor Tunnel was closed and the Fort McHenry Tunnel was restricted to one lane of traffic in each direction from about 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Backups were six miles long at times.

The Fort McHenry Tunnel handles traffic for Interstate 95 — a major thoroughfare from Maine to Florida that serves such major East Coast cities as the District, New York and Philadelphia.

The Harbor Tunnel is part of Interstate 895, an alternate north-south route through Baltimore.

“It was a massive and complex operation,” said Chief Gary W. McLhinney of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police Department, who decided to make the closures. “This is exactly what we’ve trained for.”

He said about 80 officers, including state troopers and Baltimore City and Baltimore County police, helped empty and close the tunnels within about two minutes.

“We implemented a plan that we had in place,” Chief McLhinney said. “We’ve [practiced] this exact scenario in the last few months.”

The closures were in response to an unspecified threat called in to authorities by a person claiming to have information from abroad.

A federal law-enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a man in custody in the Netherlands was the source of information about the threat.

The FBI and the federal Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement that a potential threat of “undetermined credibility” was made about an unspecified tunnel in the area. No evidence has been found to corroborate the information.

Kevin L. Perkins, special agent in charge of the Baltimore division of the FBI, said interviews are ongoing in the case to determine the credibility of the threat.

He declined to comment on reports that four persons were arrested yesterday on immigration charges at businesses with Middle Eastern connections in the Baltimore area.

A federal law-enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said one of the arrests resulted from information supplied to immigration officials by the Baltimore FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

An arrest made at a restaurant named Safi’s Pizza could be connected to the tunnel threat, the source said.

Another arrest was made at Koko Market, a convenience store in East Baltimore. Authorities led a man from the market early Tuesday afternoon, putting him inside a black sport utility vehicle, sources said.

The market is routinely open from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., but was closed by midday.

Renee Basil, a resident, said that the store opened about 10 years ago and that employees have always been friendly with neighbors.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm said authorities made about a half-dozen raids in the area at about 1 p.m.

Jim Pettit, spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment on the reports because the investigation is ongoing.

“We’re acting out of an abundance of caution,” he said.

At a late-afternoon press conference, Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said federal, state and local officials conducted a “seamless” operation.

“It truly was a joint effort at all levels of government,” he said.

Mr. Ehrlich and other officials repeatedly said the decision to close the tunnels was supported by the federal government — just two weeks after New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a plot to attack the city’s subway system, despite federal officials saying the threat was of “doubtful credibility.”

The joint statement by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department also stated the agencies “support(ed) whatever protective measures… that state and local law enforcement authorities deem appropriate to ensure the safety of their community.”

Officers inspected the undercarriage of some vehicles at the tunnel entrances, using police dogs to conduct searches.

Chief McLhinney said the searches had turned up nothing as of yesterday afternoon.

He also said that the investigation began about two weeks ago and that the decision to act yesterday was made, in part, out of concern that the terrorists would act as word of the investigation leaked.

“I’m not going to hesitate to [make closures] if I think it’s the proper thing to do,” Chief McLhinney said. “We’ll err on the side of public safety every time.”

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Mr. Ehrlich next year, held his own press conference and complained that he didn’t know about the tunnel closings until after they happened.

However, state officials strongly disputed the mayor’s contentions. Chief McLhinney said city police were present at the Maryland Transportation Authority Police Department’s command center for an 8 a.m. briefing that included the possibility of closing the tunnels. Mr. Ehrlich pointedly noted that Chief McLhinney had a sign-in sheet that showed when all the officers checked in at the center.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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