Heightened security focuses on ordinary tractor-trailers

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Heightened security focuses on ordinary tractor-trailers

Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday, October 29, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2001/10/29/MN18618.DTL

Scarcely noticed amid the national clamor over airline safety, a move is afoot to deny terrorists the humble vehicle of mass destruction used by domestic bomber Timothy McVeigh -- an ordinary truck.

In Oakland last week, a task force led by the U.S. Customs Service set up a security checkpoint at the gates to one of the region's busiest international seaport docks, where thousands of trucks converge every day to unload and load cargo.

The officers' nightmare: A terrorist sneaks a bomb into a truckload of goods and blows it up in a city.

Wielding a pair of bolt cutters, one officer twisted the latch seal off each container, as others wrestled the tailgates open and cast wary eyes over the boxed and palleted contents.

Printer's ink. Texas beef. Speed Queen washing machines headed for the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Gap clothes from Malaysia. Bicycles from China. Empty wine bottles inbound for California consumers.

Part of a national move to plug security holes at the nation's seaports, officers like Coast Guard reservist Tim Hubbel performed their laborious, needle-in-a-haystack duties as the global economy buzzed around them.

Tractor-trailers rumbled in from all over the country to drop off and pick up goods at the chain-link gates that effectively mark an international border.

"The truck that pulled in front of the (Oklahoma City) federal building was half the size of one of these," said Hubbel, a retired fire chief from Oakdale (Stanislaus County), referring to the 1995 truck bomb explosion that killed 168 people and was engineered by McVeigh, who was executed earlier this year.

"That's what I think about whenever I open one of these containers."

In Sacramento last week, California Highway Patrol, trucking industry and union officials met to ponder another worst-case terror scenario: a hurtling, hijacked petroleum tanker packing enough destructive power to take down a large building.

"I'm not aware of any overt information that suggests this is liable to happen or not," CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick said. "But we have a great deal of trucks roaming around this country that haul petroleum-based fuel. One question was, 'How do you stop one of those if they fall into the hands of the wrong person?' "

The efforts in Oakland and Sacramento are in line with federal studies and congressional testimony before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The evidence points to two primary ways terrorists could use the nation's ground transportation system to pull off a sneak attack: smuggling a weapon aboard a cargo container; or on the open road, using a truckload of explosive or toxic cargo as a weapon.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks and a vehicle-license fraud case in which a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation clerk was bribed to issue commercial driver's licenses, federal and state inspectors have been knocking on industry doors to underline the need for extra precaution by hazardous-material carriers and shippers. There are 150 such carriers from Richmond to San Jose alone.

"So far we've found very good practices," Helmick said, "but we did find a couple of companies that had yards unlocked. Clearly the exception, but that's not acceptable in today's world."

Port security is full of holes, a federal commission set up in 1999 concluded. Congress has underscored this finding in proposed legislation designed to narrow some of the gaps, including law enforcement's lack of resources to keep up with the growth of conventional smuggling, the lack of security standards and the lack of full, accurate information about what is being shipped.

Last week's security check in Oakland, like the CHP meeting on tanker safety, was not mounted in response to any specific threat. It was a means of applying to the risk of terror the same resources designed to combat conventional crime.

Inspectors who normally look for smuggled drugs and cars gave each load a once-over, briefly scanned each manifest and quizzed each driver.

No special anti-terrorism techniques or equipment are involved in such inspections, just shoe-leather police work against a large but vague new threat.

"The biggest change is in the mind of the inspectors," said Steve Baxter, the customs supervisor in charge of last week's operation.

Not unlike those who police the open road, the port inspectors are banking on the integrity, comradeship and vigilance of the people who ship the goods and who own and operate the equipment.

"The demeanor of the drivers, and the longshoremen, has changed since Sept. 11," Baxter said. "We've never had a bad relationship, but now they're glad to see you."

Driver Tony Cinco, hauling a load of Texas beef, said, "Ninety-five percent of the drivers know what they're doing, and they're on their toes."

But Jerry Stone, eastbound with a load of clothing made in Asia, had this to say as he leaned out the window of his cab: "This place is a beehive. There's no way they could ever cover this security-wise."

E-mail Rick DelVecchio at rdelvecchio@sfchronicle.com.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 29, 2001

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