Wednesday, May 09, 2007

TTA Buses Evacuated After Bomb Threat

Beth Velliquette, Chapel Hill Herald

Triangle Transit Authority buses were ordered to pull over to the side of the road and passengers told to get off the buses and move 1,000 feet away Friday morning after someone called in a bomb threat.

In Chapel Hill, there were two TTA buses running, and both happened to be on East Franklin Street, one heading east and one heading west, when the order came over the intercoms of the buses.

Franklin Street between Raleigh and Boundary streets was closed and traffic was rerouted around the buses for more than an hour until the buses could be searched and given the all-clear.

Brenda Cobbs, who rides the bus from Chapel Hill to her job at Marshall's in Durham each day, said she was scared when she heard the voice crackle over the bus intercom.

The bus had just passed the Morehead Planetarium. "We heard through the intercom, 'All TTA bus operators, pull over,' " said fellow passenger Johnell Hunter who rides the TTA to his job at Jason's Deli at New Hope Commons.

The two buses in Chapel Hill pulled over. "Then it was a while and nobody said anything," Cobbs said. "After awhile, the authorities said, 'Get off your bus and go 1,000 feet up the street,' " she said.

That's when the passengers really started worrying. The group of five passengers walked back to the Planetarium, and police officers arrived, and blocked off Franklin Street. A couple of crisis counselors from the Chapel Hill Police Department arrived to calm the riders.

There were no passengers on the other TTA bus, said Capt. Bob Overton of the Chapel Hill Police Department.

About 10:50 a.m., the all-clear was given, and the passengers walked back to their bus a block or so away and got back on board.

A call in the morning

Not everyone knew what was going on. In downtown Chapel Hill, a man with a suitcase had waited for the bus but it never came. He was planning to ride it to Raleigh, and then get another bus to Washington, D.C., but he finally gave up waiting.

The TTA buses share a call center with other transit companies in the Triangle, and a call came in about 9:15 a.m., to one of the operators, said Brad Schulz, communications officer for TTA.

TTA had about 47 buses rolling when the call came in, and all those buses were ordered to pull over and evacuate just like the buses in Chapel Hill, Schulz said.

The person who made the threat was a man with a foreign accent and the person mentioned the numbers of two buses in particular, but there were no buses with those numbers, Overton said.

The call center also takes calls for Capital Area Transit, which operates buses in Raleigh, and DATA, which operates buses in Durham.

Thirty-nine DATA buses were searched and checked when they returned to the main terminal as a precaution, said Ieshia Robertson, public affairs specialist for DATA.

"The call wasn't for us," she said. "We did it as a precaution."

Just a few hours earlier, on Thursday evening, and just a block away at the Chapel Hill Post Office on Franklin Street, Chapel Hill police managed another evacuation after a letter addressed to presidential candidate John Edwards was found to have some powder in it.

Police shut down the post office and evacuated it until the powder could be tested.

Initial tests indicated the powder was benign, and on Friday morning, the Chapel Hill Police Department received word from a state lab that the powder did not contain any harmful ingredients, Overton said.