Once Again, Landmark Is Backdrop to Violence by MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM and DAVID W. DUNLAP, nytimes.com
August 24th 2012
On movie screens it has been besieged by aliens, tidal waves and an overgrown ape. But on Friday morning the horror at the Empire State Building was all too real.
The usual, frenetic morning rush was broken by at least a dozen shots, killing two people and striking nine bystanders. Soon this famously bustling block was cordoned off by the police as emergency workers tended to the wounded.
The Empire State Building has been the scene of several awful episodes in its 81 years, all magnified by the tower’s status as one of the most recognizable attractions in New York City.
As a result of those episodes, the building’s management adopted increasingly rigorous security measures, reflecting a city that more and more views its landmarks not just with wonder but also with wariness. One of those precautions, the practice of posting extra police officers outside the building, appears to have contributed to the quick — though bloody — end of an episode that began when one man killed another on the sidewalk outside.
The Art Deco tower, which has temporarily reclaimed the title of tallest building in New York after the World Trade Center attack, is commonly watched over by a group of officers. The officers often include backup units from other boroughs, deployed by a Police Department that is keenly conscious of the potential dangers at tourist destinations.
The increased security is found inside the building as well: today motion-detecting video cameras and bomb-sniffing dogs protect the premises. The shooting on Friday did not take place within the building, nor seem to have a direct connection to it, though reports fueled civic anxiety around the city. And not without reason.
On Feb. 23, 1997, a 69-year-old Palestinian, Ali Abu Kamal, opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun at the visitors on the observation deck, killing a Danish tourist and wounding six others. A letter found on the gunman’s body indicated that he had set out to avenge the treatment of Palestinians by America, Britain, France and “the Zionists,” and that his choice of a setting was purposeful.
“My restless aspiration is to murder as many of them as possible,” he wrote, “and I have decided to strike at their own den in New York, and at the very Empire State Building in particular.”
That shooting drew attention to the fact that security guards at the building did not inspect the bags of visitors. Inspections that began after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center were discontinued just months later after many complaints from tenants and tourists.
When the observation deck reopened two days later, airport-style metal detectors and an X-ray machine had been installed. Six months later, a guard spotted a .380-caliber handgun with an extra magazine clip in a tourist’s fanny pack.
The Empire State Building’s owners also added a team of dogs to inspect cargo in the building’s loading dock, looking for possible explosives. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the building began requiring photo identification for visitors; increased its security team to more than 100 guards; and added surveillance equipment that could track people inside the building and on the surrounding streets.
The Police Department works closely with security directors at famous buildings; at the Empire State Building, the police often arrange a so-called show of force, where dozens of police cars and officers converge as a way to dissuade criminal activity.
“We paid special attention to iconic buildings and major tourist sites, as well as religious sites,” said Howard Safir, a former New York City police commissioner who oversaw the response to the 1997 shooting and now runs a security consulting firm, in an interview on Friday. “There is a whole matrix of buildings that get special attention.”
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