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Construction in D.C. Area Continues in Line of Sniper Fire

Mon October 21, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

In the construction industry, certain dangers are a part of the day-to-day job. Employees are well educated to understand the risks and take every precaution to avoid injury. But over the past several weeks, crews assigned to outdoor sites around the Washington, D.C. area have faced the possibility that they may be at risk from a different kind of danger — one that they cannot control. What if the sniper is watching them?

At press time, a suspect had not yet been named in the series of killings that have left nine dead and two wounded. Most of the apparently random shootings have taken place in busy areas near major highways, which is exactly where many construction jobs are taking place. On an individual basis, decisions must be made about how to handle the situation.

Lucille Baur, public information officer of the Montgomery County Police Department, expressed her concern for the construction crews.

“We have said to the general public, consider limiting your exposure,” she said, “but when your income is based on working outside, I think that’s a different situation. We would hope that the managers of construction sites would be sensitive to this situation. We would hope that large businesses that are in charge of construction sites might look into separate kinds of security procedures.

“But again, life does need to go on, and the most terrifying aspect of all of this is that while life has to go on, there are people that are at risk because they are outside, they are not in a covered environment. People have to make their own individual assessment of their comfort level and how they’re able to manage their time when they’re out in the open. I guess the most that we can hope would be that people are observant and don’t take their personal safety for granted. We wish that as members of law enforcement that we could protect each and every individual all the time, but unfortunately that’s just not realistic.”

On the topic of extra police patrols for construction sites, Baur noted that they do not want to give away any information regarding which areas they are sensitive to that need extra protection.

“We are not going public with the kinds of protective maneuvers we are taking,” she said. “At one point during a press conference, a comment was made that we were assigning extra officers to schools in Montgomery County and that we believed children would be safe in Montgomery County schools. Then the next day, a 13-year-old was shot outside a Prince George’s County school.”

For the most part, crews continue to work on their normal schedules, but with a heightened sense of awareness. They also do what they can to make themselves less conspicuous.

“In our work, there’s not a whole lot we can do other than have our guys be pretty vigilant,” said Tom McKew, general superintendent and operations manager of Corman Construction in Annapolis Junction, MD. “Those working near big roads and highways have been instructed to stay back from the road wherever possible or stay behind objects. But yesterday we had to pour a bridge cap right next to [Route] 32. We kept a guy vigilantly riding traffic patrol, but it’s unfortunate that you’re up on top of the form and it’s a pretty good target.”

McKew noted that some optional operations that were scheduled for the weekend might be curtailed, because they would involve night work with workers being illuminated near big roads. He also reported that an equipment fair for contractors and graduate students that was scheduled for next week has been canceled.

A spokesman of the corporate compliance office at Fort Meyer Construction in Washington, D.C., noted that he met with six other companies, and the decision was made to leave routines as they are.

“We are all aware to be more alert,” he said, “but don’t want to feed this man’s stupidity. I’m a retired police officer, and I would make changes if I deemed them necessary, but I don’t want to feed into his frenzy. As soon as he sees we’ve done this or that, he’ll try to take advantage of it.”

Lisa O’Neal, office manager of Commercial Concrete in Springfield, VA, noted that the attacks have been mentioned in company safety meetings because it does have work in many different areas, but the company is still on a regular schedule.

While Commercial Concrete does have on-site fueling for its employees, one of the foremen recently had to fill up at a gas station. He placed the nozzle into the tank, got into his truck and lay across the seat until the tank was full.

“We feel it could happen anywhere,” O’Neal said. “He wants to make everybody afraid to live, and that’s what’s happened.”

Judy, who asked that CEG not publish her last name, a field office coordinator of Holder Construction in Fairfax, VA, reported that to her knowledge, the company hasn’t taken any extra precautions except to be much more aware and pay attention to what’s going on.

“We have a very high safety record anyway, and don’t allow anyone on the site that doesn’t belong there,” she said. “But the sites are generally very open. We have to be really aware and make sure that if we see anything suspicious, we ask questions and be nosy. But we’re doing just what everyone else is doing — praying.”

Baur agreed that it is important for the public to be on the alert.

“I guess we would say to them the same as we are telling the public at large,” she said, “and that is you have to remain observant, alert, cautious, be aware of your surroundings. Lots of times people today don’t act on their instincts. You have a sense that something’s wrong, but you don’t really want to believe it’s wrong, so you just go on about your business. If you do have a sense that something doesn’t seem right, act on that. Report any suspicious people or vehicles or packages, and you can do that by calling our tip line, which is 888/324-9800, or if you see something in progress don’t hesitate to call 911.”

David Buck, a spokesperson of the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), reported that the SHA has more than 100 jobs in progress at any given time in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. He noted that the SHA has met with all of those project engineers to go over common sense issues concerning the situation.

“I think in general since 9/11,” he said, “we as state highway employees and particularly the people on the road have been much more aware of our surroundings and more aware of suspicious activity. Just like the police have said, let them determine if it’s something important — it’s not our job to. If it’s something that we even remotely think [is suspicious], it’s worth calling in.

“Because we have state highway workers out there in so many different areas of the state,” Buck continued, “you never can tell who can see what when, and that’s true for anybody with all the alerts that have gone out. This is a very unique, tragic situation and you do the best you can with the information you have, and you hope that this person gets caught quickly.”

Phil Muller, project manager of Facchina in LaPlata, MD, reported that while they have many jobs in the area, they haven’t changed any schedules either.

“We’re concerned, but we can’t change what’s going to happen,” he said. “The general consensus is that if any construction worker gets his hands on the guy, the police won’t have anything else to do. Somebody’s gotta be a hero. If it happens near me and I see the van, I’m not going to call the police. I’m going after the guy.”

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