Railroad police are on high alert for suicide bombers at Union Station in Chicago as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks approaches this week, authorities said.
Based on intelligence that al-Qaida might attempt to strike again in the U.S., Amtrak police are stepping up patrols at the Amtrak-owned Union Station using one of the newest high-tech security tools in their arsenal: vapor-wake detection dogs.
Conventional bomb-sniffing canines that are used by the Chicago Police Department, the CTA and Metra are trained to identify explosives hidden inside stationary objects, such as a garbage can, an abandoned suitcase or carried by a person in the immediate vicinity.
Vapor-wake detection dogs can do that too. But their extraordinary value involves the ability to pick up the scent of explosives that passed through an area up to about 10 minutes previously and follow the scent to its source, experts said. They do so by sniffing the plume of air wafting off a person and what they are carrying.
Your Getting Around reporter and a Tribune photographer observed as two vapor-wake detection teams went on their rounds last week at Union Station. The dogs patrol in a back-and-forth sweeping motion, and they never touch an individual, but their behavior changes dramatically, sending an indication to their handler, when they hit on a potential explosive, officials said.
"If someone were taking explosives through a station, the dog might be at the top of a long escalator, and even with the person passing quickly below, the dog would pick up the vapor wake and follow it back to that person," Amtrak police Chief John O'Connor said. "It gives us the power to detect a suicide bomber in the middle of a crowd."
Amtrak police Officer Stan Bailey and his partner, Riot, a Belgian Malinois, patrol Union Station and its rail yard. The team also rides Amtrak trains in the Chicago region checking out other rail stations.
"We take train rides so the dogs operate with passengers,'' said Bailey, who has been on the police force almost five years. "The vapor-wake dogs work for about three hours, take a break and then go back to work."
Riot recently picked up on a scent and followed it to a man dressed in a business suit at Union Station, Bailey said. It turned out the individual was a U.S. marshal passing through the station, and Riot had picked up the odor of black powder in the marshal's gun, Bailey said.
Although it was a false alarm, it demonstrated the dog's keen sense of smell.
"If the explosives are actually moving or the person has come and gone, Riot will detect it and follow the scent,'' Bailey said, adding, "I will put my dog up against any other detection dog anywhere."
Amtrak has two vapor-wake detection teams based at Union Station, along with conventional bomb-sniffing canine teams, officials said. The vapor-wake dogs were trained at the Auburn University Canine Detection Training Center in Alabama.
Authorities are being extra vigilant at Union Station, which serves Amtrak and Metra trains, and other rail stations in the U.S. because of intelligence gathered during the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May, O'Connor said.
"We know based on information recovered from the bin Laden compound that there had been some talk about launching an attack in the U.S. in association with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and using trains in that attack," O'Connor said.
"We are doing everything possible that nobody picks up on that intent," he said, adding that the FBI is not aware of any specific target or terrorist operational plot. "We can't ignore the fact that al-Qaida was talking about attacking trains."
The threat of an attack succeeding against commuter or mass-transit systems is considered high because the systems are much more difficult to secure than airports and they are accessible to everyone, according to experts.
Terrorists detonated 10 bombs placed in backpacks at four locations in Madrid's train system in March 2004, killing almost 200 people and injuring more than 1,500. Terrorists struck again in July 2005 on the London Underground and a bus. More than 50 people were killed, and about 800 were wounded.
O'Connor said he believes that the mobility and versatility of vapor-wake canines are major advantages.
"At the airports, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) has machines that they have to single-file people through,'' he said. "We've got these dogs that can literally walk among 1,000 people and pick out a suicide bomber.''
The TSA this year deployed vapor-wake detection teams at O'Hare International Airport after the first TSA class of dogs graduated the 13-week program at Auburn in April, officials said.
Amtrak police Sgt. Michael Stoltz went to school for three months with his partner, a vapor-wake dog named Ryder, a yellow Labrador retriever. The two haven't had a day apart from each other since then.
Stoltz said it took a little while to learn Ryder's "quirks of behavior,'' but now the pair communicates clearly with each other.
While on patrol last week, Ryder displayed curiosity about a bag a woman was carrying in Union Station. Stoltz knew immediately that the dog was not flagging explosives because the pooch didn't give the subtle pull of its leash to signal something dangerous is there.
Just as your Getting Around reporter started to ask Stoltz how he could tell the difference between mild curiosity and Ryder lighting on a suspicious package, the woman carrying the bag bent down to face the dog and said in a grandmotherly way, "No, No. I've got cookies in there. You can't have them."
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