Bomb threats close major tunnels during downpour, snarling traffic throughout city

For rush hour, the perfect storm

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It was a bad day to be driving around Pittsburgh.

A bomb threat and a downpour combined to bring rush hour traffic to a standstill yesterday afternoon, causing backups several miles long on the Parkway East, Parkway West and Route 28.

The bomb threat called in just before the beginning of rush hour shut down the Fort Pitt, Liberty and Squirrel Hill tunnels, stranding motorists for almost an hour while authorities conducted security sweeps.

And while police searched for a bomb, a quick but heavy thunderstorm rumbled over the city shortly after 5:30 p.m., dumping 2 inches of rain in less than an hour.

Water flooded down the hillside near the Millvale Industrial Park and covered a stretch of Route 28 that measured about three blocks and was several inches deep, prompting authorities to close the heavily traveled artery between 31st Street and 40th Street.

The road remained closed for about three hours, reopening around 9 p.m.

While the weather was a headache for motorists, the bomb threat was a much more serious matter for city, state and federal authorities.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Robin Mungo said a person with a male voice and a foreign accent called in a bomb threat from a pay phone on the South Side to Allegheny County 911 at approximately 4:45 p.m.

The call, placed from the 1200 block of East Carson Street, specified only that a bomb was in one of the tunnels on the parkway and was set to go off at 6 p.m., Trooper Mungo said.

The call set in motion a series of events that resulted in authorities shutting down all of the inbound and outbound lanes of the Fort Pitt, Liberty and Squirrel Hill tunnels.

State police sealed off entrances around 5:45 p.m. to all of the tunnels as Pennsylvania Department of Transportation crews began walking through the structures to conduct their own safety checks. Fifteen state troopers and other law enforcement officers were sent to conduct security sweeps that held up traffic until the tunnels were reopened at about 6:30 p.m.

Nothing was found inside any of the tunnels. The Liberty Tunnels were closed after the Fort Pitt and Squirrel Hill tunnels because city officials were concerned that the threat extended to other tunnels in the area.

The Squirrel Hill tunnels were closed briefly when tunnel crews conducted their own walk-through before authorities arrived.

Trooper Mungo said because of the unspecified nature of the threat and the potential of injury to hundreds of thousands of motorists who use the tunnels every day, the decision was made to seal off the tunnels at the height of rush hour. She said authorities knew the decision was going to be a "traffic headache."

"If it's about saving lives then it will become standard," said Trooper Mungo. "In the day and age we live in, we take every threat serious. We would rather be safe than sorry. If they go home late at least they go home in one piece."

Sharon Glass, of Dormont, who was stuck on the ramp leading to the Fort Pitt tunnels, said she had planned to meet friends of hers at 7:30 p.m. in Mt. Lebanon.

"It looks like that is not going to happen," said Mrs. Glass, who works for Highmark, Downtown. "Luckily, I put a new CD in my car this morning."

For drivers on Route 28, it was more a matter of inconvenience.

Jerry Woolf, 61, of Carnegie, said he spent more than an hour sitting in the traffic on Route 28. While a few other drivers leaned on their horns, Mr. Woolf, a courier returning from a delivery in New Kensington, spent the time listening to his radio.

"I have patience," he said.

Police and PennDOT officials said it was the first time in recent history that they shut down all of the traffic flowing in and out of the tunnels because of a bomb threat. The officials defended shutting down all of the tunnels as not only a precautionary measure but also proper protocol for similar "critical incidents."

City police from the Zone 3 station on the South Side said the pay phone on Carson Street was removed for fingerprinting.

Similarly, PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said no suspicious activity or suspicious people were spotted in the area of any the tunnels. He said the 90 traffic cameras that PennDOT uses to monitor traffic flows and accidents did not pick up anything out of the ordinary. He said the cameras do not record because it would be too time-consuming to review all of the tapes they would produce.

Mr. Struzzi said about 180,000 motorists use the Fort Pitt tunnels every day and about 105,000 to 110,000 use the Squirrel Hill tunnels daily. He said the Liberty Tubes have about 40,000 to 60,000 cars travel through them daily.

Trooper Mungo said the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force were investigating the matter as well.

City police were trying to find witnesses in the area last night and urged people to call the Pennsylvania State Police at 412-787-2000.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Heavy traffic collects on Route 28 near the old Heinz Factory yesterday after the section between the 31st Street and 40th Street bridges was closed by flooding.
Click photo for larger image.Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Rush hour traffic is stopped on the Duquesne Bridge after the Fort Pitt Tunnels were closed by bomb threat last evening that also shut down the Squirrel Hill and Liberty tunnels.
Click photo for larger image.

Moustafa Ayad can be reached at mayad@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731. Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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