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Archive for Monday, October 29, 2001

worry truckers

October 29, 2001

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— Waitress Gail Sanders keeps photos of suspected terrorists beneath the counter and scrutinizes every customer who enters her busy south Georgia truck stop.

"We look for these folks," said Sanders, pulling out her printout of the FBI's 22 most-wanted terrorists. "You keep your eyes open and listen."

She and many of the truckers who roll in to sip coffee and eat fried chicken have become obsessed with a fear that before Sept. 11 seemed remote that terrorists would use some of the nation's 1.5 million 18-wheelers as weapons.

Trucker Charlie Bell says many drivers have stopped routinely giving "Smokey Bear" warnings over their CB radios. They don't want to warn any terrorists who may be listening about state troopers spotted on the highway.

"If the terrorists are out there, we want them to be caught," said Bell, 62, of Madisonville, Ky. "Drivers are more cautious about what they say. You look to see who passes you."

On high alert

The entire industry is in a heightened state of alert. The Department of Transportation, FBI and Environmental Protection Agency have urged companies that transport hazardous materials to be especially vigilant. Officials say at least one of the witnesses being sought in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington was licensed to haul hazardous materials.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has proposed legislation to give the DOT more authority to stop and inspect trucks carrying hazardous materials, and some lawmakers have proposed criminal background checks for hazmat drivers.

Truckers themselves are taking steps to avoid having their rigs stolen or hijacked. The American Trucking Assn., the nation's leading trucking organization, has urged drivers to communicate regularly with dispatchers, to vary their routes to avoid being followed and to park near other trucks or at reputable truck stops so other truckers can help keep an eye out.

"I just watch the mirrors on both sides and see what's happening," said Fred Trutt, 63, of Portland, Ore., who makes transcontinental trips for Midwest Coast Transportation.

Schneider National, North America's largest trucking company, based in Green Bay, Wis., said it has stepped up security, but wouldn't say how, "to safeguard our customers, associates, equipment and facilities."

Schneider's orange trucks are among the hundreds of 18-wheelers that roll into the vast parking lot at the Travel Centers of America near Cordele each day.

The stop, located along Interstate 75 about 180 miles south of Atlanta, is a haven where truckers can fill up their rigs, shower, relax in a TV room and dine in the restaurant, where Sanders rushes around refilling coffee cups and serving stacks of pancakes.

Far from big cities or military bases that would be possible targets, the stop is nonetheless full of drivers and employees worried about terrorists.

"I watch where I park and who is beside me," said Bell, who drives for Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, Ark. "If it is dark, you watch where you walk. We're using more padlocks (on the cargo doors) ... especially if you leave it overnight."

Many trucks are equipped with satellite systems that allow the companies to track trucks to within a couple of hundred feet. A truck going off course would arouse suspicion.

Increased inspection

Truckers said they are getting more scrutiny from transportation officials at weigh stations, especially if they are carrying hazardous materials.

In New York, where workers are still sifting through the rubble of the World Trade Center, police have been checking documents and inventory on all vans and trucks entering Manhattan, a process that often slows traffic to a crawl.

Truck stops have also tightened security. Workers monitor parking lots more closely and they lock doors that used to be left unlocked, said Melvin DeBruhl, general manager of the Cordele truck stop.

At the Jack Rabbit Travel Center in Albany, Ga., trucker Perry L. McDaniel used his satellite system to check in with his company, Swift Transportation of Phoenix, Ariz. Since Sept. 11, he uses a stronger lock on the trailer doors and he checks in at every stop.

McDaniel, a 25-year-old licensed hazardous material driver from Mobile, Ala., flipped through warning placards on the back of his trailer explosive, poisonous, flammable, corrosive, radioactive.

"The thing that worries us most is our hazmat loads," he said. "You don't know if ... this placard could make you a target."

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