WOONSOCKET – The state Bomb Squad was in town again yesterday, this time to check out a backpack left aboard a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus passing through Depot Square.
The squad x-rayed the backpack without removing it from the parked bus and quickly determined that there was no danger, said Detective Sgt. Matt Ryan.
“The backpack was empty,” he said.
The driver of the bus, who was not identified, contacted authorities at 9:43 a.m. The driver found the backpack after dropping off passengers on Clinton Street, about 100 yards north of the Providence & Worcester railroad bridge.
Ryan said the police determined that a passenger left the backpack on the bus because she didn’t realize it was hers.
“Apparently she was an elderly person and she was confused,” said Ryan. “She thought her backpack was a different color so she left it behind when she got off the bus.”
The RIPTA driver was just doing his job by reporting the incident. A spokesman said RIPTA’s official policy is for drivers to be alert and report suspicious activity to the authorities.
The Woonsocket Fire Department, numerous police officers, and at least two trucks from the state Bomb Squad responded to the incident. The police cordoned off a section of Clinton Street and the Truman Bypass to motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic during the investigation, which lasted about a half-hour. The nearest buildings, about 75 yards away, were not evacuated.
Though it turned out to be a non-event, the abandoned backpack is just the latest in a string of incidents that show how edgy people have become in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and how willing some are to exploit the anxiety.
Four students at Woonsocket High School, including one legal adult, Khalil Oliver, 18, are facing criminal charges for making a series of bomb threats at the school between April 23 and May 1. Police have dismissed those incidents as pranks aimed at nothing more than disrupting classes. Each incident, including one involving the participation of the state bomb squad, involved the evacuation and search of the school. The student body was never in any danger, officials said.
Also, a citizen contacted authorities after discovering a backpack tossed behind a house on Cass Avenue April 27, a Saturday. As a safety precaution, the bomb squad, in plain view of neighbors, detonated the package, which police said contained a cell phone, some wires and hats.
The Washington, D.C.-based Council on American Islamic Relations immediately called on the FBI to investigate the backpack as a “hate crime,” citing some suspicious writing on the backpack and its proximity to the apartment of a Muslim family. Hours later, however, police said they determined that the backpack was not a threat and was unintentionally placed in the family’s backyard. The backpack was inscribed with the names of various punk-rock artists, including USA Bomb, and contained stolen property which had apparently been discarded.
The spate of false bomb scares, intentional and otherwise, is hardly confined to Woonsocket. Authorities are fielding such reports all over the country in the wake of the marathon bombings, in which three people were killed and scores savagely wounded on April 13. Some law enforcement agencies have advised residents to be extra cautious to take all their belongings and packages with them when leaving public locations.