Pitt students try to put aside fear, frustration from bomb threats
By Mike Wereschagin
Published: Sunday, April 15, 2012
The small group of prospective students, their parents and a student guide approach the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard and wait for the traffic light to change.
A white sport utility vehicle drives toward them, heading north on Bigelow. As it passes, a man shouts out the window, "Don't go to Pitt! It's not safe!"
The tour guide ushers the visitors across Fifth Avenue, into the heart of a besieged Oakland campus, and begins to talk about the University of Pittsburgh's Student Union.
Eleven buildings are evacuated this day, the 11th consecutive day of threats from someone claiming to have planted bombs on campus. As of Saturday, the total number of threats since Feb. 13 passes 90.
The threats have changed the 132-acre campus that defines Pittsburgh's busy Oakland neighborhood, akin to a second Downtown. Here research hospitals, row houses, fast-food and ethnic restaurants, museums and the Roman Catholic diocese's St. Paul Cathedral coexist. Traffic congestion and parking once were the biggest hassles.
These days, university, city and federal law enforcement officers work 14-hour shifts. Students await the next evacuation order. In dormitories, they no longer expect a full night's rest.
Some have gone home, but many more remain. A number of Pitt schools plan commencement ceremonies in the days before the university-wide ceremony scheduled for April 29 in Petersen Events Center.
Hundreds of people post email addresses and phone numbers on Internet message boards, offering students places to stay when evacuation sirens sound in dorms. Students in apartments near campus turn up the volume on phones before going to sleep, so they won't miss someone's call for help.
One night when about 500 freshmen evacuate from their dorm to a nearby building, head football coach Paul Chryst stops in to reassure them.
Together, people in Oakland endure.
"There's unity, there's cooperation, there's understanding. We have not closed," says Pitt spokesman Robert Hill. "We're a university that's under stress, a university that continues to operate."
When Thomas Farrell goes to bed at night in Brackenridge Hall, he's uncertain how long sleep will last. In the morning while brushing his teeth, he wonders which classroom he'll be told to leave because it might explode. All his exams are now take-home. Most of his professors post lectures online.
Farrell goes to class anyway. He learns better that way.
He leaves for class about 30 minutes earlier now because of lines that form as security personnel check everyone's bags at building entrances. At the 42-story Cathedral of Learning, the line stretched so far out the door one day last week that he gave up.
Two government SUVs with darkly tinted windows park outside the Cathedral of Learning. A large satellite dish atop the rear one points toward the sky.
"Somebody has to pay for all that," says Steve Barabas, 64, of Queens, N.Y. His daughter, Bianca, 22, is considering attending Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs next year to study in the International Development and Human Security program.
Hill says administrators won't know how many people went home until after the semester. Final exams begin next week.
"There are significantly less people here," Farrell says.
Dean of Students Kathy Humphreys sent an email to students saying administrators support the decision of those who have gone home, and offering guidance for those who stayed. Faculty members will have backup plans if a bomb threat disrupts their final exam, the deadline for changing their grading scale to pass/fail extends through the week's end, and students on probation won't be suspended for academic reasons this term, Humphreys wrote.
Tulips bloom along the walkway between the recently evacuated Wesley Posvar Hall and Hillman Library on Thursday morning. The chilly air carries the smell of freshly cut grass, murmurs of students and the crackle of police radios. A thermometer reads 43 degrees. It looks warmer, but the sun cannot seem to get the job done this morning.
Across Schenley Drive, in the restored plaza, two classes sit in circles on folding chairs of wood and metal. One class studies America's history in the Middle East. The other, a new literature class, discusses Jonathan Franzen's novel "Freedom."
The threats were "kind of funny" at first, Katie Albin, 23, says as she waits for her next class. Then they became annoying. Now it's starting to get scary, says Albin, a junior English literature major living in Lawrenceville. Her classmates talk about school massacres at Virginia Tech and Columbine.
"Isn't today the anniversary of Columbine?" she asks. It isn't until this week, four days after the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting on Monday.
As Tess Gibson heads to bed in her Oakland apartment on Wednesday night, she considers turning off her cellphone. The thought of an uninterrupted night of sleep -- just one night without the hassle and fear -- seems so tempting.
But she can't do it. Someone might need her. And sure enough, about 11:30 p.m., the ringing awakens Gibson, 20, a history major. A bomb threat forced another evacuation of Litchfield Towers, and two freshmen she offered to help need a place to sleep.
They bring blankets and pillows, and Gibson tries to convince them not to feel guilty for waking her.
"This is so far past normal," Gibson says the next morning. Her father, who witnessed the Kent State shootings in 1970, tells her not to worry.
Gibson's roommate won't come to campus.
Hillman Library is reopening after a morning bomb threat, and Gibson needs to study there. She does not want to go inside. She doesn't feel safe.
Of the 28 people enrolled in her new literature class, 13 show up.
"The only place I feel safe is my apartment," Gibson says.
Two hours before students are supposed to start setting up for Spring Carnival, Harry Clapsis does not know if he can go through with it. The freshman economics major from Boston organized the carnival on behalf of the Resident Student Association. He feels responsible for it.
Hundreds of people will pack themselves into the narrow space between towering brick residence halls, a spot known as "the quad," for carnival games and free food. Clapsis calls Pitt police Chief Tim Delaney.
"Students want something normal," he recalls Delaney telling him. "This event has been going on for years. You can't let these kinds of things get to you."
Hours later, the sun slips below a residence hall roof, casting the quad into shadow. More than 300 students mill about, trying to throw softballs into old milk kegs and flip rubber frogs into plastic lily pads. They eat funnel cakes and popcorn. Inside the Student Union, students sign a banner supporting Pitt police and donate money for a Petco gift card for the bomb-sniffing dogs.
Clapsis stands off to one side.
"If we get a bomb threat, we get it," he says.
Hannah Mayes walks through Spring Carnival on her way to her dorm room in Bruce Hall. Her friend, Kate Bilash, awakened her about 5:30 that morning after receiving a text message about a bomb threat in their building before the sirens sounded.
Mayes, 19, is tired, but she spots a black Labrador retriever named Riggs sitting in front of Pitt K-9 Officer Dave Nanz and walks over to them.
"Is this the dog that's been searching our buildings?" she asks.
"One of them," Nanz says.
She leans down to pet the top of Riggs' head.
He goes into buildings for her, searching for a bomb, though the dog does not know what a bomb does. Riggs leans his head into the comfort this stranger offers.
"Thank you," she says to them, and her eyes well with tears.
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