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D.C. Banks Close Doors After Bomb Threat

by Neil Irwin And Allan Lengel, The Washington Post

Most bank branches in the District shut down yesterday in response to a bomb threat, later attributed to a 13-year-old boy calling from the Netherlands, inconveniencing thousands of people on tax deadline day and revealing continued local jitters over the threat of terrorism.

According to the FBI, someone from the Netherlands called the Metropolitan Police Department on Sunday night and said a bomb would be detonated at noon Monday at a national bank in the center of Washington. Yesterday afternoon a 13-year-old boy confessed to Dutch authorities that he made the call, said Terrance W. Gainer, D.C. executive assistant police chief.

The FBI said in a statement that while it did not give much credibility to the call, the agency decided the threat was specific enough that it should warn banks and recommend that employees be vigilant.

Most banks in the District went further, closing down altogether. The eight biggest banks in the city, which account for 158 out of 193 branches in the District, shut their doors for the day. Riggs National Corp., Bank of America Corp., Wachovia Corp., SunTrust Banks Inc., Citibank, Branch Bank & Trust Co., Allfirst Bank and Chevy Chase Bank all closed their D.C. branches, as did many smaller institutions.

Even before the revelation that the call may have been an adolescent prank, FBI officials played down the bomb threat. "We wouldn't have told them to close," said agency spokesman Chris Murray.

But officials of the banks that closed said their reaction came from heightened worries over security that began with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and have only escalated amid recent suicide bombings in Israel.

"What was interesting was the number of institutions that just shut down completely," said Kate Carr, chief executive of Adams National Bank in Washington, which locked its doors from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. yesterday. "Many of us think you have to keep open and keep operating, but on the other hand you don't want to risk employees. I'm concerned that this is just the beginning of warnings and alerts such as this. It's very disruptive."

To some customers, the disruption was a disturbing reminder of the times. "It's kind of unnerving that terrorists, they're able to get to the very day-to-day life of everybody," said Eduardo Abreu, who was using the automated teller machine at the Chevy Chase Bank branch at 17th and L streets NW.

To others, the closures were a mighty inconvenience. It came on the deadline for filing tax returns -- a day when many people need to conduct transactions -- as well as the 15th of the month, a common payday.

Denise Wiktor, a Washington resident, said she was planning to make a deposit, credited to the 2001 tax year, into her individual retirement account at a Bank of America branch yesterday. April 15 was the deadline for making an IRA deposit in time to yield any 2001 tax benefits.

"Now I'm screwed; I've already filed my return," she said.

Similarly, Carol Wayman of the District planned to deposit money in a Roth IRA. She showed up at her Citibank branch near the last minute -- about 4:15 p.m.

"Now I just lost this year, 2001," she said, meaning that the deadline had passed when she could make a deposit to the retirement account and gain tax benefits for 2001. "I understand people are cautious now. The world is a scary place. But I guess they could have reopened the banks once they determined it wasn't going to happen. Now I'll just have to wait until next year."

An IRS spokesman said he was unaware of any steps to help people who miss tax deadlines because of the bank closures.

At the SunTrust bank at the corner of 15th Street and New York Avenue NW, a senior manager announced the bomb threat at about 10 a.m., said branch manager Lillian Lockette. Bank officials decided to do so in the interest of employee safety, said a corporate spokesman.

Everyone remained calm as they evacuated, said Lockette, who figured it was a prank somehow tied to yesterday's demonstration at the Capitol in support of Israel.

"Nobody panicked," Lockette said. "We had some upset customers, because it's payday and also tax day. Some people want to open their IRA accounts at the last minute. I was expecting a big day."

At about 9 a.m., D.C. police officers were directed to go to all the bank branches in the city and inform them of the threat. Gainer, the police official, said D.C. police and the FBI are working with Dutch authorities to determine what legal action will be taken against the alleged caller.

"It seems like a very expensive prank," he said. Because they are part of the nation's financial infrastructure, banks are restricted in their ability to open and close by regulators. Even on Sept. 11, after terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, banks generally stayed open. Yesterday, however, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued a proclamation allowing banks to close because of the bomb threat. The office had not received requests from the banks but took the action after learning of the threat, a spokesman said.

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