So safe, it's scary

Posted: Friday, February 08, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Back home, everyone wants to know if it feels safe walking around at the Olympics, if athletes and fans are consumed with dread about a terrorist attack or lunatic bombing or something nobody ever thought could happen.

The answer, so far, is that it feels so safe, it's scary.

You can't take a step in any direction without seeing somebody in a brightly colored security uniform, armed and watchful and whispering conspiratorially into a phone headset.

Dogs are sniffing out trouble, military helicopters are hovering overhead, National Guard troops are wielding M-16s, and there are miles of yellow tape cordoning off buildings for bomb sweeps before the games begin. And that's just what's visible. Blending in surreptitiously with the crowds and athletes are security personnel no one is supposed to notice.

It's comforting and discomforting and, of course, absolutely necessary.

''After 9-11, we want to do everything we can to make people feel safe,'' says Christine Lassen, one of the many green-jacketed ''Event Services Specialists'' who look out for anything suspicious. ''I don't think anything will happen. I really don't. But, then, I hope I don't have to eat my words.''

If there's a soft side to the security it's in the pleasant way the guards and troops deal with fans, athletes and media as they negotiate around the detours and through the scanning devices.

''Everyone is always smiling and treating us very nice,'' French curling skip Dominique Dupont-Roc says. ''Every border of the athletes' village is protected, like a fort. It feels very safe, very good.''

No threat is treated as too trivial, not even a plastic grocery bag filled with fuses and electrical wire that was found Thursday near a downtown garage. Police blew up the package, which contained no explosives, and called it a ''hoax device'' that might have been planted deliberately and deviously to see how police would react.

''There's some concern it was like a trial run,'' said Craig Gleason, a police department spokesman.

The bag was found around noon by construction workers a few blocks from the main press center. Police evacuated two nearby buildings, and military helicopters scanned the area. The FBI and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were called to the scene.

At the same time, and all through the night, Secret Service agents and bomb-sniffing dogs covered every inch of the Salt Lake Ice Center, while security guards kept everyone else from coming close.

The cost of security for these games is estimated at $310 million, and if nothing happens it will be worth every penny. The first big test is at the opening ceremony Friday night, where President Bush, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and three other heads of state join 55,000 fans and Olympians from 77 countries in the University of Utah football stadium.

''There is no margin for error,'' Secret Service agent Mark Camillo said. ''We don't get a second chance.''

All that can be done, everyone involved with security believes, has been done.

''We may not eliminate risk entirely because there is no such thing as an absolute fail-safe guarantee in Salt Lake City or anywhere else,'' Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said in a speech in Washington on Thursday.

The feeling on the streets of Salt Lake City is reminiscent of the way it was in Montreal at the 1976 Summer Olympics, four years after the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich. In response to that attack, police snipers were stationed on downtown rooftops, military personnel guarded gates with automatic weapons, and everyone walked around feeling safe and nervous.

Olympic security over the ensuing years became less intimidating, less obvious, even after the bombing at Centennial Park in Atlanta in 1996.

Five months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the souped-up security force of 16,000 from 59 federal, state and local agencies in Salt Lake City has brought back that same strange brew of emotions felt in Montreal -- peaceful but edgy. The troops and guns, themselves, are a constant reminder of the dangers that may lurk somewhere out there.

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