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N.H. bomb scare a false alarm

Man who refused to exit bus didn’t speak English

Officers surrounded a Greyhound bus in Portsmouth, N.H., Thursday after a 911 call that suggested a bomb might be on board. Officers surrounded a Greyhound bus in Portsmouth, N.H., Thursday after a 911 call that suggested a bomb might be on board. (Joel Page/Reuters)
By Peter Schworm and Milton Valencia
Globe Staff / May 8, 2010

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Police said yesterday that the 10-hour drama that paralyzed the center of this seaside community and pitted a phalanx of federal and local law enforcement authorities in a tense standoff with a man suspected of carrying a bomb was merely a misunderstanding.

The man at the center of the ordeal, triggered by a 911 call from a passenger on a bus bound for New York with a stop in Boston, was an immigrant from Burundi who spoke no English, they said. There were no explosives on board, and the middle-age foreign national, who refused to leave the bus for seven hours after his fellow passengers had safely exited amid heavily armed police, was apparently nothing more than a frightened bystander with little idea of what was happening around him.

“It wasn’t long before we realized he was scared,’’ Portsmouth Police Chief David Ferland said at a press conference at department headquarters. “We don’t think there was any criminal intent.’’

Ferland defended the overwhelming response, which involved SWAT teams, bomb squads, and a sharpshooter in an armored vehicle, as “perfectly measured and appropriate, given what we knew at the time.’’

“I don’t see how we could have handled it any differently,’’ Ferland said.

But coming just days after a failed car bombing in New York City, the incident drew attention as a cautionary tale. Specialists said the incident showed how heightened fears around terrorism can lead to false alarms, as an edgy populace increasingly perceives unusual behavior as a threat.

“As citizens, we are primed to respond, to see potential terrorism everywhere,’’ said Mathieu Deflem, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina who has written about the policing of terrorism.

Suspicions are particularly primed in the immediate aftermath of high-profile scares, he said. Yesterday, authorities closed part of Times Square in Manhattan after finding a cooler and a shopping bag on a sidewalk near where the failed car bomb was found. The cooler was found to contain only water bottles. Earlier this week, a false bomb threat was called in from Fenway Park.

Police said the recent incidents did not influence their reaction, but that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks fundamentally changed law enforcement’s mind-set. ‘Since Sept. 11, everything’s changed,’’ Ferland said. “These are real threats.’’

Thursday’s drama unfolded as the bus left the Portsmouth station around 11:20 a.m. Police said a female passenger called 911 and told the dispatcher she had overheard part of a cellphone conversation the African immigrant was having. The person on the other end spoke in English and said there was a bomb on the bus, police said the woman reported.

The woman, who described the African man as “strange,’’ also notified the bus driver, who pulled over and disabled the vehicle, police said. Police refused to release a recording of the 911 call, saying it could compromise their investigation.

Two passengers interviewed by the Globe, 20-year-old Danielle Everett of Poland, Maine, and Megan McClelland, a 21-year-old junior at Bates College, said that a male passenger later told police and other travelers that he had been suspicious of the man speaking on the cellphone and had mentioned his concerns to the driver. The passenger described the man on the phone as yelling in a foreign language and sounding “panicked.’’

The standoff was resolved when police contacted a member of the man’s family who spoke his native language. The family member explained to the man what was going on.

“He assured him that no harm would come to him if he surrendered to the police officers outside the bus,’’ Ferland said.

Police declined to name the man, but said he lives in Maine and was traveling to New York City. He is in the country legally, and will face no charges. Police drove him to his home in Maine after he surrendered.

Two men were charged with unrelated crimes after being taken off the bus. John Smolens, 68, of Lewiston, Maine, was charged with resisting arrest after not complying with police orders and was tasered and handcuffed. Calvin Segar, 29, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was charged with giving false names to police.

Specialists said the highprofile incident showed the increasingly blurry line between vigilance and paranoia.

“It makes people cautious, and some cases jumpy, and we’re going to have false alarms,’’ said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “I think it’s for citizens and law enforcement to make those judgment calls.’’

Maria Cramer contributed to this report.

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