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Brooklyn Bridge still draws visitors, despite terror alert

Locals and tourists flock to the landmark in a show of patriotism and defiance.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2002



NEW YORK

Thomas Duddy is getting his morning exercise: a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. He's been doing it for years, and nothing, absolutely nothing, is going to get in his way – even a terrorist threat to blow up the span.

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"I have decided my daily exercise is important, and I cannot rearrange my life according to Mr. Zubaydah or whatever his name is," says the retired English professor, referring to the captured Al Qaeda operative whose information led the FBI to warn that the bridge is a potential target.

At the beginning of the bridge, on the Manhattan side, "Big Ralph" is selling cold drinks from some coolers decorated with patriotic bunting and an American flag. He offers tourists a chance to have their picture taken with a life-size "Uncle Sam" doll sitting on a bench. "Never fear," he yells as the bridge walkers stroll past.

New Yorkers such as Mr. Duddy, along with plenty of tourists, are not deterred by the FBI warning last week about the famed bridge, which connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is part New York defiance about nonspecific threats, and part patriotism such as Big Ralph. But there's also a lot of love of the span itself.

Perhaps as much as the World Trade Centers, the Brooklyn Bridge is part of what makes up New York – and even America. The bridge is part of the nation's history of technological prowess. When it was completed in 1883, it was the first span to use steel for cable wires to hold up what was then the longest bridge in the world. It was also the first connection across the East River, thus helping to weld the five boroughs into a single great city.

"In many ways, it has become a symbol of New York City," says historian Kathleen Hulsar of the New York Historical Society.

She's seen Russian chewing gum with the Brooklyn Bridge on it. In the 19th century, a textile company advertised that its threads were as strong as the cables on the bridge. There have been television documentaries on the building of the bridge. It was the name of an award-winning television show about a Jewish boy's coming of age in 1956. Filmmakers have shot its span for everything from "Over the Brooklyn Bridge" to last year's "Kate & Leopold."

Beefed-up security

Police are taking the threat to the span seriously. An officer in a three-wheeled scooter is patrolling the broad promenade. With the threats, he says he's making more trips back and forth. In the water, a police boat monitors the pleasure boats and barges cruising on the current-ripped East River. And, over in Brooklyn, vehicular traffic (no trucks are allowed on the bridge) is shunted past police officers, who glance inside some of the 73,000 cars that cross to Manhattan each day.

But security experts say it's difficult to protect accessible assets. Such difficulties were illustrated over the weekend with the collapse of a bridge in Oklahoma, although that incident doesn't appear to be linked to terrorism.

"We don't have the people, and we can't take them out of day-to-day public-safety responsibilities," says John Cohen of Pscomm, a security consulting business based in Rockville, Md. "We need to move out of our emergency-response mode and involve state and local authorities so protection of assets is part of the day-to-day business," says Mr. Cohen, who has worked on congressional oversight of law-enforcement agencies.

On the promenade

The security consultant's concerns have not manifested themselves on the promenade, however, where bicyclists pedal their way to jobs in the financial district and joggers lope across the 1,595-foot main span. On a recent sunny morning, the bridge attracts many tourists who want to just soak up the views up and down the river and experience its history – all for free.

There is Susie Morris, from Tucson, Ariz., who says, "I love this bridge, and we're just in town for the day, and I felt I needed to come and walk across it."

Is she afraid of a terrorist bomb? "Life is dangerous, and you have to live life everyday, so I don't think that fear is a good way to live," she replies.

Ed Scharrer, with his wife and children, says that walking across the bridge was the highlight of their trip to the city from Cincinnati. "We're Seventh-day Adventists, and the bridge gave us a great perspective on the Watchtower building," says Mr. Scharrer.

Tom and Janelle Law, visitors from Ulladulla, Australia, got up at 4 in the morning so they could stand on the bridge and watch the city wake up.

"Driving in New York is more dangerous than walking across the bridge," says Mr. Law.

Gary Gorman, a retired police officer, is telling some tourists how he used to talk down people who wanted to jump off the bridge. His new project is working for iMar.com, which offers personalized tours of ground zero and the bridge.

"Is anybody afraid of being on the bridge?" he asks his tour group. No one is. "Business is booming," he says.

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