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San Francisco crash shows 'what if' in tankers-as-weapons
San Francisco Chronicle


May 02, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the aftermath of a fiery gasoline truck accident that destroyed key ramps on a San Francisco highway, security analysts and truck drivers are weighing the scope of damage a deliberate terrorist attack using tankers could cause U.S. metropolises and highways.

Security experts said the crash - and the costly repairs - demonstrated how easy it would be for terrorists to disrupt normal life in major U.S. cities.

"It's very difficult now to purchase explosives ... but it's not that hard to steal a truck full of gasoline, and you can do quite a bit of damage," said Christopher Falkenberg, a former Secret Service agent who is now the president of Insite Security, a consulting firm in New York. "You don't need access to sophisticated explosives to have a big impact."

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has called the accident a giant wake-up call, saying it highlighted how vulnerable San Francisco is to a potential terrorist attack.

Truck drivers already are required to undergo a mandatory background check to haul hazardous materials, such as gasoline, said Nico Melendes, spokesman for the Transportation Security Agency, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security that oversees security of the nation's transportation.

Congress mandated the background checks as part of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, concerned that trucks could be used as weapons of mass destruction. The checks - carried out by the FBI and other security agencies (depending on which state the driver is from) - are designed to prevent fugitives, the mentally ill and those convicted of terrorism, espionage or murder from hauling hazardous materials.

But background checks do not prevent gasoline tankers from being stolen or hijacked by determined terrorists, said John Conley, president of National Tank Truck Carriers, Inc., an association of truckers.

"It's certainly a concern," said Conley. "Somebody stealing a cargo tank and doing something bad with it. Once the truck is out the gate it is out there, and it is vulnerable to somebody who would be willing to go after it and hijack it."

More than 800,000 trucks carry shipments of hazardous materials every day across the United States, according to the Transportation Department.

Although the damage from a gasoline truck bomb would be less than from some other weapons, it could significantly impair the economies of major metropolitan areas, said Falkenberg.

"All the schedules and all the adjusting of time and inventory - when that whole system really breaks down, that's really expensive," he said, especially if you "have several arteries damaged at the same time."

Chris Bertelli, deputy director of the California's Office of Homeland Security, said his agency will examine the economic fallout of Sunday's accident.

"Looking at our infrastructure and our economic infrastructure is very important," said Bertelli. "Anytime there is a way for us to plug in real information from a real world ... is gonna make us better prepared."

Neither the federal Department of Homeland Security nor the Transportation Security Agency said it was investigating Sunday's accident.

Melendes said there is little the federal authorities can do to prevent trucks carrying gasoline from being used as bombs.

"How do we do this, set up checkpoints on the freeway?" he said. "Living in a free society there are things we can't control. The Constitution basically would not allow it."


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