Area officials tighten security, wait anxiously after strike
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times,
In Tampa, police in full riot gear surrounded City Hall while snipers patrolled the roof of police headquarters. A Pinellas judge sent a jury home early in the midst of a trial. Gulfport police called in off-duty officers, preparing for any horror.
As the horror unfolded in New York and Washington, not in their own communities, most simply watched their televisions for the deadly news elsewhere.
"We're just paying attention to our surroundings a little more," said Gulfport police Chief Curt Willocks. "There's always the chance of a copy cat or somebody taking advantage of the confusion. Most of all, we're all numb, wondering how this is going to affect our way of life."
Security was tightened at most large Tampa Bay area government offices, especially federal buildings. The U.S. District Court in Tampa was closed. At Pinellas' largest federal complex, the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, which is home to nearly 3,000 workers, 30 armed federal officers were on heightened alert while off-duty officers were told to be ready to report to work on a moment's notice.
"We consider ourselves vulnerable," said VA spokesman Laurence Christman. "In reality, they've hit the center of industry in New York. They've hit the center of government in Washington. I don't think terrorists will be thinking about a hospital in Pinellas."
Dozens of Tampa police officers and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies were posted outside the gates of the MacDill Air Force Base to provide extra security. A sheriff's marine unit even patrolled waters adjacent to the base.
At the Pinellas Sheriff's offices in Largo and Dunedin, armed deputies were posted in lobbies to screen all incoming packages.
Pinellas officials called in extra ambulance crews, just in case.
For four hours, the Federal Aviation Administration ban on air travel grounded all Bayflite medical helicopters until 2:15 p.m., when the ban was lifted for emergency aircraft.
Throughout the region, emergency crews were alerted that they may be needed to go to New York to assist in recovery efforts. Tampa was sending two cadaver-sniffing dogs. Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said 28 county and city firefighters were waiting for the first available flights northward.
While snipers kept watch atop Tampa police headquarters, SWAT team members with automatic weapons stood guard outside Greco's office. Non-essential Tampa city employees were sent home.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker sent out a memo saying workers could take a vacation or unpaid day off, if they were too emotional to work.
Greco had just finished giving an early-morning speech at a Paint Your Heart Out function at the Hyatt hotel when he saw the terrorist news.
"It's like it's not real," Greco said. "All of us have friends in New York. How do you know who's on the planes and who isn't?"
Police fielded numerous calls from residents searching for reassurance or a sympathetic ear.
"We were having to do a lot consoling of people who were frightened or concerned or had family up north and didn't know how to get in touch with them," said Pinellas sheriff's spokesman Greg Tita.
A few people who keep aircraft at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport hired off-duty deputies to guard their planes overnight, he said.
U.S. Coast Guard officials said they were stepping up security of Tampa Bay waterways, though they refused to detail efforts.
"Let's say we're assuring the safety of our ports and shipping channels," said Coast Guard spokesman Paul Rhynard.
Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger sent his staff home by 3 p.m. "Everybody was so distraught and emotional, I figured they should be with their families," he said.
Dillinger was trying a case with another lawyer when a bailiff whispered to him the news about terrorist attacks about 10 a.m. Soon, Pinellas County Judge Robert Morris Jr. let jurors know. Upset, they asked to go home. He obliged.
St. Petersburg City Hall security officer Ron Whitaker did think of one thing the city could do, as he monitored television news coverage from his post in the lobby of the building.
"Have we lowered our flag?" he wondered aloud just before 1 p.m.
When he saw the flag wasn't lowered, he telephoned Baker's office. "It's a national crisis," he said as he dialed. "I think we should."
Later, the flag was lowered.
- Times staff writers Leanora Minai, Bryan Gilmer, Christopher Goffard, Deborah O'Neil, Bill Varian, Katherine Gazella, Ed Quioco, Anita Kumar, Melanie Ave and David Karp contributed to this report.
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