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Guards and Grit on California Bridges


Given their first chance to react to a specific terrorist threat after weeks of vague warnings, many California motorists on Friday shrugged off the prospect of attacks on some of the state's most high-profile bridges.

Some drivers admitted they were anxious, a day after Gov. Gray Davis disclosed a "credible" terrorist threat against several major spans, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro and the Coronado Bridge in San Diego.

But traffic on the spans was unchanged or only slightly lighter than normal. Transportation officials said the traffic patterns Friday indicated that the threats did not deter many motorists.

"We have no reason to believe that people avoided the Coronado Bridge this morning," said Tom Nipper, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation in San Diego.

In fact, several commuters who crossed the bridges said the warning was too vague to take seriously. Others said they were tired of living in fear and refused to change their regular routines.

"My chances of being killed falling asleep at the wheel are better than being killed in a bridge explosion," said Melissa Barhour, a Sacramento resident who crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday morning. "What a bunch of hype."

But taxi driver Tom Kyne wasn't so sure.

"I was driving across the bridge, singing a happy tune, thinking this latest scare was all a bunch of malarkey--then I saw this yellow rental [truck] right in front of me, moving real slow," he said after crossing the fabled 4,200-foot-long suspension bridge.

"I gotta admit, just that sight scared me a little bit. But I'm all right. I gotta cross this bridge. I got a family to feed."

Courage on the Morning Commute

Lillian Utter, a secretary who regularly crosses the Vincent Thomas Bridge to get to work in San Pedro, had to summon all her courage before making her morning commute Friday.

"I reached way down inside to see if I could sense that terrible feeling in my stomach; or hear the little voice that says, 'Don't do it,' " said Utter, who works at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. "I was ready to turn around and try another route if I did.

"But my gut wasn't twisting, so I kept going. When I reached the other side, I wanted to wear a sign that said, 'I made it! You can too!' "

A co-worker, Michael Hobson, was equally concerned, but not so daring. Staring up at the imposing, 6,050-foot-long suspension bridge with tight lanes and no shoulders, he said, "I use it from time to time--but not today.

"I'll drive around it, which is five miles out of my way. Better to be safe."

At the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday, officials investigated a report that a toll-taker received several dollar bills "with a strange white substance," officials said.

After the toll booth worker accepted the bills shortly before 1 p.m., officials briefly quarantined three workers who had handled the bills and were continuing to investigate the incident.

Morning traffic was down nearly 5% from a normal Friday on the Golden Gate and had slipped by 8% on the Bay Bridge, according to transportation officials.

But Jeff Weiss, a Caltrans spokesman in San Francisco, said the drop in traffic was not significant.

Even some workers who had the chance to stay home didn't bother. Bechtel Corp., a large international construction firm based in San Francisco, gave all of its 3,000 employees the option of working from home on Friday.

"The overwhelming majority have indeed come in to work today," Bechtel spokesman Alexander Winslow said.

The number of passengers riding the Bay Area Rapid Transit system was up about 6% on Friday, suggesting that some who avoided the bridges opted to commute across the bay by rail instead.

National Guard, Police Presence

But even BART passengers were a bit on edge.

"I have to say, I felt a little uneasy on BART this morning," said Sarah Williams-Foster, a Lafayette resident who rides the commuter train to work in San Francisco. "There was a guy wearing a fleece vest and it occurred to me he could have had explosives strapped under it."

Some nervous motorists turned to the ferries that crisscross the bay. For example, a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco that normally carries about 100 passengers each morning carried about 560 on Friday, according to officials.

In Southern California, exact traffic figures were not available for the Coronado or Vincent Thomas bridges. But officials said they noticed no significant changes Friday morning.

The governor based his warning on a confidential FBI alert to law enforcement agencies nationwide, warning about the possibility of six rush-hour attacks on West Coast bridges sometime between Friday and Wednesday. Federal officials, annoyed that Davis went public with the warning, quickly describing the threats as "uncorroborated."

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