Passengers who rode a Greyhound bus south from Maine before being detained in Portsmouth, N.H., on Thursday waited for hours without being told why their bus was surrounded by heavily armed police officers.

After being ordered off the bus one by one at gunpoint, they learned that a passenger had called 911 to report the possibility of a bomb on board after hearing a person speaking in a foreign language, and someone talking about a bomb in English.

The last passenger to get off the bus — at 8:40 p.m., nine hours after the incident began — was a man from Burundi who speaks Swahili and only very rudimentary English.

Police said Friday that the man, who had boarded in Portland bound for New York City, told them he was terrified to leave the bus. They determined that he posed no threat and that there was no bomb.

Authorities said Friday that having 14 state, local and federal agencies respond to the report was appropriate, given last weekend’s car-bombing attempt in New York City and the potential danger if the report had been true.

Police didn’t say who made the 911 call. Portsmouth Police Chief David Ferland said officers had information that was worrisome.

“First-responding officers on scene got witness reports of a man on the bus with a gun and observed what looked like a person trying to get off the bus (who) was suddenly whisked back away from the door,” he said in a prepared statement.

“Communications between the people on the bus and the police officers began immediately,” he said. Passengers “reported a strange man sitting inside that was talking on a cell phone in a foreign language with one passenger clearly hearing in English a part of the conversation that stated ‘there was a bomb on the bus.’“

Ferland characterized the incident as a misunderstanding complicated by a language barrier.

Abby Samuelson, a Bates College student, said her friend and fellow student Megan McClelland was on the bus, heading home to upstate New York because classes had ended. McClelland told Samuelson:

The driver pulled over in Portsmouth about 11:15 a.m., said there was engine trouble, got off the bus, told the 17 passengers to stay on board and didn’t return.

The passengers were frightened to see police in body armor with automatic weapons surrounding the bus and evacuating the area.

One of the passengers, a sophomore from the University of Maine, called Portsmouth police and became the conduit for information between the passengers and authorities.

“If someone had to move to go to the bathroom, she would have to tell this officer she was communicating with, ‘This person in a red shirt is going to stand up and walk to the bathroom,’ so people outside the bus would know,” Samuelson said. “Whenever there was unknown movement on the bus, that hadn’t been reported, basically the guns would go up.”

Eventually, the passengers were told to leave the bus one by one, leaving any backpacks, wallets or purses behind.

Once outside, they were ordered to rotate so sharpshooters could see they had nothing attached to their bodies, then whisked to an interview room at the police station. One passenger, Calvin Segar, 29, of New York City, was charged with giving a false name.

Another man, John Smolens, 68, of Lewiston, was charged with refusing to obey officers’ commands. He was incapacitated with a Taser after refusing to take off his coat or leave his wallet and continuing to defy police, despite warnings that they would use the Taser, McClelland told Samuelson.

Finally, only the UMaine student and the man from Burundi were left. She was instructed to give him her phone and leave.

“A lot of them could tell he didn’t necessarily understand anything that was being said. There was no indication he was comprehending anything,” Samuelson said.

Burundi is a Central African nation that has been the scene of bloody ethnic clashes. Many immigrants from war-torn areas come to fear government forces, which would explain why the man was hesitant to leave the bus.

Ultimately, police found someone who knew the man and was able to translate police instructions. The man left the bus at 8:40 p.m., shirtless and wearing camouflage pants, and was led away. Police did not identify him, and said Friday that he faces no charges.

The bus was examined by the N.H. State Police bomb squad and the FBI, which turned up nothing.

Caroline Robe, 20, a graduate of Waterville High School and a student at UMaine, was riding the Greyhound on her way out West, where she had been hired for a summer job, her mother said Friday.

Susan Robe of Waterville, speaking for her daughter, said that when the bus arrived at its stop in Portsmouth and the driver left, Caroline Robe and others got concerned when the driver didn’t return — and they saw authorities surrounding the bus.

“She didn’t feel unsafe in the bus,” Robe said. “They were more concerned because there were guns pointed at the bus.”

During the standoff, Caroline Robe called 911 and helped authorities on the phone with assessing who was on the bus and what was happening, her mother said. She also helped a woman on the bus who had a health problem.

“She’s a wonderfully strong person,” Robe said. “A real strong thinker. She helped them resolve it and she was very clear-headed and very responsible.”

Security officials and others said Friday that the report of suspicious activity on the bus and the response — by local authorities, state police, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — wasn’t surprising, given recent incidents.

A week ago in New York’s Times Square, a vendor alerted police to a car that had been rigged to blow up with gasoline and propane. The bomb did not explode.

Ten days ago, a trans-Atlantic flight made an emergency landing in Bangor after a man on board claimed to have a false passport and a bomb. No bomb was found.

Police cannot assume that a threat isn’t serious, said Capt. Ted Ross, head of the Portland police bomb team.

“Absolutely, it’s not overkill,” he said of Thursday’s response in Portsmouth. “These things are only limited by the imagination of the people involved.”

Ross said responders apparently were working with scant information. Not knowing the location or size of a possible explosive, they had to evacuate the surrounding area.

Restricting people’s movements is essential, as was scanning each passenger as they left the bus, he said. Requiring the passengers to take off jackets and turn slowly helped police know whether there were hidden explosives.

Bill Thornton, a social psychology professor at the University of Southern Maine, said it’s not surprising that many residents would become hyper-vigilant about the possibility of terrorism, and make connections they might not otherwise make.

“Especially with Times Square. It’s on TV for several days, now we have the guy caught and it’s still going to be talked about. Even though that’s one incident, you hear it many times,” he said.

As he spoke Friday, Times Square had been evacuated as authorities investigated an unattended cooler — which held someone’s lunch.

After Thursday’s ordeal, the Greyhound passengers tried to reassemble their itineraries. Some were put on another bus to continue their trip south. Those headed for New York City would not arrive until Friday morning.

McClelland was picked up by her friends from the Bates ski team and spent the night back at Bates before catching a car ride to Boston. From there, she planned to fly to Lake Placid.

“We decided not to put her on a bus again,” Samuelson said.

 

Scott Monroe of the Morning Sentinel contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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