June 21--FAIRFIELD -- A forgotten school art project shut down Metro-North Railroad on Friday, snarling traffic for three hours and raising new questions about how police respond to emergencies on the nation's second busiest commuter rail system.
The suspicious package found at 5:30 a.m. Friday on a bridge above the Fairfield railroad station turned out to be harmless -- except for forcing Metro-North to suspend early morning train service and wait an hour for members of a state police bomb squad to arrive from Westbrook and the Hartford area.
And the whole thing could have been avoided if a member of the Connecticut Commuter Action Group said something when he saw the item on the bridge Wednesday night.
"I feel stupid," Mitchell Fuchs said Friday, admitting he examined the "suspicious" package the night before. "I even remember thinking. 'I hope my hand doesn't blow off' when I reached into the box. But then I saw it was empty and figured someone just left it there."
Meanwhile, there was plenty of criticism to go around, ranging from anger at more Metro-North delays to questions about why it took the state police bomb squad an hour to arrive at the scene.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, the state police spokesman, said the bomb squads consist of trained officers who live in towns across the state. A Fairfield County trooper is a member of the squad, but was unavailable because he was attending training Friday morning.
"An hour is sufficient response time," Vance said.
He said state police were called by Fairfield police at 6:24 a.m., and by 6:29 a.m. officers were en route, lights flashing and sirens blaring. They arrived on scene at 7:30 a.m., and by 8:15 a.m. concluded the box was harmless.
Metro-North soon released its trains and the morning commute finally got underway.
"Even if a bomb tech was right there in Fairfield, they are going to clear the area of all people first and then examine it with equipment. We have people around the state who are certified bomb techs," Vance said.
Although bomb squad members are on call 24 hours a day, they are not on duty day and night. They are called as needed and have all the equipment they need in their vehicles, Vance said.
Metro-North does not have its own bomb squad; the nearest municipal bomb unit is at the New Haven Police Department.
State Sen. Andres Ayala, D-Bridgeport and vice chairman of the Legislature's Public Safety and Security Committee, said the response time, given the importance of Metro-North to the region and New York City, must be examined further.
Metro-North serves 281,000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut.
"If it took that long of a response, who knows what could have happened if there was a timer," Ayala said. "The leadership ought to look at this, how we address it, and the response time needs to be a lot quicker."
Ayala said a mutual aid system could be developed or a specialized unit created for Metro-North so bomb squad resources can be accessed quicker and allow the region's transportation system to resume sooner.
"The traffic is already outrageous. In the spirit of moving this forward, we need a quicker response," he said. "I dread the event that won't be a false alarm if we can't get there in a timely manner."
State Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven and chairman of the public safety committee, said it takes time for a state police bomb squad to assemble. But he said towns are forming regional units for storm response and other emergency needs.
"With specialized units, it does take time to get them to saddle up," Dargan said. "It's something we want to look at and there will be discussions about it."
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said Metropolitan Transportation Authority police rely on state police for specialty units like bomb squads.
"Unfortunately, it is not infrequent that police ask us to put a hold on the tracks," Anders said. "In our experience, when a canine is on the scene, 99 percent of the time, the suspicious package is cleared and trains resume quickly.
"That was our expectation (Friday morning). Once we heard that the canine did not clear it and that the bomb squad was being called, we began crafting a customer message with a best estimate of how long it might take for service to resume. It is not an exact science."
The situation began as Fairfield town employees sweeping the street early in the morning found a box with painted cartoonish eyes resembling the character Bender from "Futurama," complete with a clock face, on the sidewalk of the Unquowa Road overpass shortly after 5:30 a.m.
It was on the other side of the bridge from the stairway leading to the train platforms.
Fairfield police called in MTA officers with a bomb-sniffing dog and later called the state police bomb squad. A state police helicopter hovered over the Post Road near the train station.
Metro-North and Amtrak service was stopped in both directions from New Haven to Stamford. Regular service continued into New York City from Stamford and commuters worked their phones to arrange rides.
The "package" turned out to be left behind by a seventh-grader from nearby Tomlinson Middle School, Fairfield Deputy Police Chief Chris Lyddy said.
"The child inadvertently left the item in the vicinity of the bridge with the intent of returning to retrieve (it)," Lyddy said. "There was no malicious intent."
While Metro-North stopped all of its trains at 6:13 a.m., the first alert to passengers came at 6:56 a.m. -- nearly 45 minutes later -- warning of long delays due to "police activity."
The package was X-rayed, police closed several streets off the busy Post Road, a section of U.S. Route 1. The train station parking lot at Mill Plain Road was also blocked off. Some trains were as much as three hours late into Grand Central Terminal.
Once service was restored at 8:30 a.m., it was like pulling a cork from a bottle, with trains coming through the Fairfield station within minutes of each other until the backlog was cleared.
Trains were back on schedule shortly after 10 a.m.
Although some criticized the bomb squad's response time, many commuters felt it was Metro-North's failure to communicate that was the biggest problem.
"We've been told nothing," said James Marren, of Fairfield, as he waited on the far side of the Post Road in front of the Chase Bank. "I'm going to stick it out for a while, as long as there is a chance that a train will come."
Fuchs, a Fairfield resident and New York City property manager who checked out the suspicious box the night before, said he realized Friday morning "as soon as the report came out that the 'suspicious package' was the same box" he saw the night before.
But he still didn't say anything.
"What difference would it have made then?" Fuchs asked. "Something could have been put inside the box in the meantime. They had to check it out."
James Cameron, who heads the commuter action group, said he is disappointed in Fuchs.
"Shame on Mitch for just leaving it there," he said. "It looked pretty sinister and if I was a bad guy I'd make it look somewhat comical like that."
Cameron said Metro-North's response was disappointing too, noting riders were first made aware of a service disruption "of some sort" by 5:30 a.m. through a crowd-sourcing service, CleverCommute.com.
Hearst Connecticut Media reported at 6:15 a.m. that train service in Fairfield had been shut down.
Reporters John Nickerson, Anne Semmes, Genevieve Reilly, Gretchen Webster and Digital News Editor Jim Shay contributed to this story.
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