U.S. truckers keep rolling despite terror, inspections

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http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/topstory/part8_20011027.htm Published Saturday, October 27, 2001

U.S. truckers keep rolling despite terror, inspections A PEOPLE TESTED is a look at how Americans across the country are handling the terrorist threat, and how much resolve they have to handle whatever comes next. Today's installment, the eighth in the series, provides a view of the country through the eyes of those who drive its highways and freeways for a living -- truckers. "If you want to know what's going on, ask them," says a man who cuts truckers' hair in Tennessee. "They know America. They are America."

To read past installments and see the photos, go to www.BayArea.com and click on "more coverage."

By Thomas Peele and John Simerman CONTRA COSTA TIMES


The engines of their rigs whine into the night.

Gears churning up mountains. Airbrakes hissing like giant serpents on the way down.

They haul just about everything -- food, wine, formaldehyde, explosives -- from one end of the country to the other, lining up like horses at watering troughs to inhale diesel fuel at truck stops along the warren of interstate highways.

A bumper sticker on the back of one rig in Oklahoma reads: "If you bought it in America, it got there in a truck."

Out on the road, sometimes a continent from home, truckers can't avoid the war on terrorism. Police check their manifests and cargoes. The CB radio waves boil with opinions. Flags stack high on truck stop counters, and the nearby racks brim with shirts bearing off-color diatribes against Osama bin Laden.

"I'm just driving down the road. That's not going to eliminate you from everyday life," said Tim Holt, 55, a trucker from Florida. He sat in a truck stop in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, a red baseball cap on his head and a club sandwich and fries on his plate.

Holt waited for a load order from a dispatcher. A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, Holt said, he went to pick up a de-icing machine at an Air National Guard facility in Great Falls, Mont. His trailer sat a fraction of an inch too low and "the inspectors all were really panicky," he said.

After that experience, "I don't even know if I'd want to haul government freight right now," he said. "They're in that mode."

In Maryland, just north of Baltimore on Interstate 95, trucker Jonathon Barnhart, 24, said the attacks angered him so much he re-enlisted in the Army after several years of civilian life. "You can't make no money driving truck now," he said in the cab of his big rig.

"It takes twice as long to get to the next destination. Everything is a lot more tight. It seems like there are a lot more (Department of Transportation) checks than there were before" Sept. 11.

Ferris James, 65, of Champaign, Ill., drives across the country every week and goes home on weekends to see his wife. In the cab of his 18-wheeler, his face weathered in the morning sunlight, a gap in his smile, he looks like a living piece of American folklore.

More than 20 years ago, "I used to haul a tanker of formaldehyde out to California, wash out the tank, and haul a load of wine back east," he said. "But they won't let us do that in the same truck no more."

James started driving trucks 47 years ago and out on the highway he goes under the radio handle "Slim Jim." His CB microphone hangs on a hook above the yellow gearshift. The cab holds a bed in the back where James curls up at night.

Everybody on the radio, he said, talks about the war. "On and on," he said. "Everybody has an opinion. Everybody has the answer, but they might not know the question."

Stephen Winfrey calls himself the trucker's barber. The drivers float in and out for a trim at his shop in a converted motel room at a Tennessee truck stop.

"People think they just drive a truck," Winfrey said. "But they are businessmen. If you want to know what's going on, ask them. They know America. They are America."

In Little America, Wyo., drivers come and go long into the cold, windy night. The truck stop makes up the entire town of 200 people along Interstate 80. It might not be the middle of nowhere, but you can certainly see it from there.

When she gets some free time at the Little America truck stop, Stacy Tyler, 27, makes red, white and blue ribbons that she gives to travelers at the counter.

"I've made hundreds of them for people," she said. Tyler also likes to try convincing travelers that an animal called a jack-o-lope lives in the Wyoming countryside. She keeps a mounted one -- a jack rabbit with antlers glued to its head -- behind the counter.

But lately, her sense of humor wanes as the war carries on.

Tyler, whose husband runs a nearby sewer plant, tears up when she thinks about her 1-year-old daughter and the child in her belly. She keeps a scrapbook of articles about the terrorist attacks and the war, so she can show her children later.

"I thank God my daughter is too young to understand, but I'm worried she won't live long enough to tell her kids about this," said Tyler. "It's affected us so much more than we thought it would, even though it's so far away."

"In the two years I've lived here, I've never locked my doors until now."

Linda Henderson, a 51-year-old clerk at the store, takes a more vigilant approach. After Sept. 11, she said, "I loaded my rifles and put them right by the door in the living room."

Henderson has three rifles. She loaded them one by one, each after a new piece of troubling news about the terrorist threat.

"They could pick anywhere," said Henderson. "If they pick my house, I'd use my gun."

Two thousand miles east, at a truck stop just off the New Jersey Turnpike in Carney's Point, driver Tom Halpin of Virginia Beach said most truckers take the increased inspections in stride.

"If you want to check my freight up and down, have a good time," said Halpin, 48, "and most drivers feel the same."

This country also better get used to a tightening of civil liberties, said Halpin, a retired Navy petty officer who served in both Vietnam and the gulf war.

"I don't like giving up any of my liberties. I fought too hard to preserve them," he said. "But if it means keeping my family safe, I can deal with it."

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 27, 2001


Ever see how many 18-wheelers are stacked up around big truck stops around the big cities? How easy it would be to hijack a munitions or dangerous chemicals truck and smash it into something big.

There are so many of these trucks on the road today that they cannot all be adequately guarded. It's frightening.

-- Wellesley (wellesley@freeport.net), October 27, 2001.

If terrorists were to heist big trucks from truck stops they would catch the truckers inside a restaurant probably, drinking coffee or eating lunch, away from their CB radios and unable to warn.

A scary thought all right.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), October 27, 2001.

WIRE: 10/28/2001 1:21 pm ET

Truckers across the country worried about terrorists using big rigs as weapons

The Associated Press

CORDELE, Ga. (AP) Waitress Gail Sanders keeps photos of suspected terrorists beneath the counter and scrutinizes every customer who enters her busy south Georgia truck stop. "We look for these folks," said Sanders, pulling out her printout of the FBI's 22 most-wanted terrorists. "You keep your eyes open and listen."

She and many of the truckers who roll in to sip coffee and eat fried chicken have become obsessed with a fear that before Sept. 11 seemed remote that terrorists would use some of the nation's 1.5 million 18- wheelers as weapons.

Trucker Charlie Bell says many drivers have stopped routinely giving "Smokey Bear" warnings over their CB radios. They don't want to warn any terrorists who may be listening about state troopers spotted on the highway.

"If the terrorists are out there, we want them to be caught," said Bell, 62, of Madisonville, Ky. "Drivers are more cautious about what they say. You look to see who passes you."

The entire industry is in a heightened state of alert. The Department of Transportation, FBI and Environmental Protection Agency have urged companies that transport hazardous materials to be especially vigilant. Officials say at least one of the witnesses being sought in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington was licensed to haul hazardous materials.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has proposed legislation to give the DOT more authority to stop and inspect trucks carrying hazardous materials, and some lawmakers have proposed criminal background checks for hazmat drivers.

Truckers themselves are taking steps to avoid having their rigs stolen or hijacked. The American Trucking Associations, the nation's leading trucking organization, has urged drivers to communicate regularly with dispatchers, to vary their routes to avoid being followed and to park near other trucks or at reputable truck stops so other truckers can help keep an eye out.

"I just watch the mirrors on both sides and see what's happening," said Fred Trutt, 63, of Portland, Ore., who makes transcontinental trips for Midwest Coast Transportation.

Schneider National, North America's largest trucking company, based in Green Bay, Wis., said it has stepped up security, but wouldn't say how, "to safeguard our customers, associates, equipment and facilities."

Schneider's orange trucks are among the hundreds of 18-wheelers that roll into the vast parking lot at the Travel Centers of America near Cordele each day.

The stop, located along Interstate 75 about 180 miles south of Atlanta, is a haven where truckers can fill up their rigs, shower, relax in a TV room and dine in the restaurant, where Sanders rushes around refilling coffee cups and serving stacks of pancakes.

Far from big cities or military bases that would be possible targets, the stop is nonetheless full of drivers and employees worried about terrorists.

"I watch where I park and who is beside me," said Bell, who drives for Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, Ark. "If it is dark, you watch where you walk. We're using more padlocks (on the cargo doors) ... especially if you leave it overnight."

Many trucks are equipped with satellite systems that allow the companies to track trucks to within a couple of hundred feet. A truck going off course would arouse suspicion.

Truckers said they are getting more scrutiny from transportation officials at weigh stations, especially if they are carrying hazardous materials.

In New York, where workers are still sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center, police have been checking documents and inventory on all vans and trucks entering Manhattan, a process that often slows traffic to a crawl.

Truck stops have also tightened security. Workers monitor parking lots more closely and they lock doors that used to be left unlocked, said Melvin DeBruhl, general manager of the Cordele truck stop.

At the Jack Rabbit Travel Center in Albany, Ga., trucker Perry L. McDaniel used his satellite system to check in with his company, Swift Transportation of Phoenix, Ariz. Since Sept. 11, he uses a stronger lock on the trailer doors and he checks in at every stop.

McDaniel, a 25-year-old licensed hazardous material driver from Mobile, Ala., flipped through warning placards on the back of his trailer explosive, poisonous, flammable, corrosive, radioactive.

"The thing that worries us most is our hazmat loads," he said. "You don't know if ... this placard could make you a target."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 28, 2001.

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