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    Phone call shuts Skyway

    Bridge traffic is delayed an hour while officers check out the report of two suspicious men. They find nothing.

    photo
    [Times photo: Kevin German]
    Officers direct cars onto the median and back into northbound lanes of Interstate 275 as a traffic jam builds just north of the tollbooth leading to the Sunshine Skyway Monday morning.

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    By CURTIS KRUEGER and ALICIA CALDWELL
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 2, 2002


    After shutting down the Sunshine Skyway for an hour Monday morning, the Florida Highway Patrol said it had discovered nothing to bolster a caller's claim that two men threw a suspicious package off the bridge.

    About 40 law enforcement officers from various agencies converged on the bridge shortly after the 8:50 a.m. incident. They searched for the men and the package, but didn't find either, said Lt. Mike Rushing, of the FHP in Manatee County.

    A driver using a cellular phone made the call, saying the men were of Middle Eastern descent and driving a pickup.

    State troopers and other authorities quickly began looking for the supposed package, or for any ropes that might have been used to lower it or tie it to the bridge, or any other evidence.

    "Nothing was found," said Rick Morera, spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

    Investigators interviewed the caller later Monday. Asked whether they believed the caller had accurately reported what he saw, or thought he saw, FHP Lt. Sterling King said authorities would determine "whether he was being accurate or whether he was making a false report."

    But King stressed Monday afternoon that he knew "nothing to refute" a belief that the caller had good intentions. Officials would not release any information about the caller.

    King said it was rare for the FHP to receive a call alleging terrorism. The incident came three days before the July Fourth holiday, at a time when federal officials have been warning the public and law enforcement to be alert for possible terrorist activity.

    Once the call came in Monday, authorities swarmed the bridge.

    State troopers drove over the Skyway, as other traffic was routed off the bridge spanning Tampa Bay. A Coast Guard helicopter soared above it.

    Meanwhile, Coast Guard and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue personnel sailed underneath. They looked for anything that might have been tied underneath the bridge. They also searched the water where the package might have dropped, "to see if anything was floating in the water, or maybe it sank," King said.

    These checks turned up nothing. No one other than the cell phone caller reported seeing anything suspicious, King said.

    But an investigation was continuing Monday. Investigators were preparing to review videotape that routinely records happenings on the skyway.

    Along with the bridge, the shipping channel also was closed, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Paul Rhynard. Officials at Tampa International Airport issued a temporary flight restriction over the bridge, but no commercial flights from the airport were affected.

    A Coast Guard helicopter, a cutter and two other boats were used in the search. A St. Petersburg Fire/Rescue Department boat also was dispatched.

    The incident delayed the departure of the Cisne Branco, a Brazilian vessel that was part of the tall-ships festival in St. Petersburg over the weekend, said Jack Glasure, president of St. Petersburg Events, which organized Americas' Sail 2002.

    That meant Gene and Bev Simmet had to wait a little longer to see the ship, as they sat in their Pontiac in a rest area just north of the bridge. But the Simmets, who are retired and live in Clearwater, said they didn't mind the wait.

    Tom Hafely, 44, was casting into the water on the fishing pier on the Pinellas side of the bay Monday morning when he saw police vehicles speeding up the Skyway and helicopters circling.

    "Two little kids said they heard up at the shack that there was a bomb threat," Hafely said. He and Shawn Ahearn, 38, who is visiting from Pittsburgh, discussed what to do. But they figured that even if there was a boom, there wasn't much they could do.

    So they kept on fishing.

    "If it's a nuke, it's too bad," Hafely quipped.

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