Passengers dial 911: Bus driver's Taliban remark panics riders
By TRACY ROBINSON
and JOHN A. HARNES
[Asbury Park Press 12/01/02 - MARLBORO, NJ] -- A visibly annoyed bus driver, trying to use alternate routes to avoid heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike yesterday, responded to passengers' questions about where he was going by saying he was taking them "to the Taliban," authorities and passengers said.
Moments later, passengers were on their cell phones calling 911 -- sparking a massive police response.
A witness reported seeing at least 19 patrol cars speeding to the scene late yesterday afternoon as authorities wondered if the Greyhound bus, en route from Philadelphia to New York City, was involved in a possible terrorism incident.
It was "apparently a big overreaction," Monmouth County Prosecutor John Kaye said.
"It wasn't terrorism, not at all," Kaye said. "It was not a hijacking. It was just a foolish remark made at a bad time."
Police flagged down the bus, and the driver pulled over to the side of the northbound lanes of Route 9, just south of Route 520. While police evacuated the bus and questioned the driver, a traffic jam developed in that direction, reaching at least as far south as Freehold, a witness said.
Kaye said that after talking with the driver; officials from the Greyhound Bus Co., headquartered in Dallas; and passengers, police charged the driver, identified as Robert L. Mickens, 37, of Brooklyn, with the disorderly person's offense of creating a false public alarm.
Marlboro police Capt. Brian Hall said Mickens "unfortunately lost his temper and made a comment he should not have made that caused great concern."
Mickens probably would be released last night on a summons, and would have to appear in municipal court, Hall said. He did know the court date for the hearing.
Kaye said the disorderly person's charge carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.
Jamille Bradfield, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Greyhound, said the bus was carrying 30 passengers.
The prosecutor said it left Mount Laurel at 3:30 p.m. and was supposed to arrive in New York City at 5:10 p.m.
However, Kaye said that after the driver saw that the turnpike was crowded, he decided to take alternative routes.
"But he became confused about the proper way," Kaye said.
Passengers on the bus, many of whom regularly use the service, began questioning the driver, who began responding with "vague or smart-aleck answers," Kaye said.
After the driver made the Taliban remark, several passengers dialed 911 or Greyhound headquarters, which told them to call 911, Kaye said.
As they waited at police headquarters for the company to send another bus to complete their trip to New York City last night, several passengers described what they had witnessed on board the bus.
Sung Woo Cho, 21, of Boston, said he climbed onto the bus in Philadelphia at about 1 p.m., heading to New York City.
"I was in the middle section of the bus and the driver was going the wrong direction and people were complaining," he said.
"A woman stood up, and when she asked the driver where we are going, he said, 'We are going to the Taliban,' " Cho said. "I guess the driver got irritated, angry."
"Most of the people thought he was just being a jerk," Cho said.
Dara Salcman, a passenger from New York, said that after the bus was stopped, police told passengers to get off with their hands in the air. Police officers had their guns pointed at the bus, she said.
Sally Weisbrot, 30, of New York City, said the incident was: "the most unbelievably blown-out-of-proportion thing."
"He (the driver) was clearly joking because he was annoyed, but people took him seriously and called the police," Weisbrot said. Before the bus had even left the bus station, traffic was so congested it was suggested that the driver take a different route to New York City, she said.
She described the driver as "very unthreatening."
Jovis Pognon, 24, of Brooklyn said the way the driver sounded when he said Taliban, "I don't think he was serious." Pognon said the driver even laughed after making the Taliban comment.
A prosecutor's spokesman at a news conference at Marlboro police headquarters last night said his office, and other law enforcement agencies, have to take everything seriously that could be terrorism related and investigate it. A representative of the national Office of Homeland Security even responded to the incident, he said.
Lynn Brown, a spokeswoman for Dallas-based Greyhound, confirmed the incident had happened.
"All of the passengers are safe, which is always our foremost priority," Brown said. She said Greyhound is working with authorities to determine what happened.
Passengers were put aboard another bus, which left at about 8:30 p.m.
John L. Budzash, of Howell, formerly of the anti-tax group Hands Across New Jersey and who is now the spokesman for the Taxpayers Task Force, was on his way home from work, heading south on Route 9, when police cars starting passing him.
"It happened a little after 5 p.m., about 5:20 I believe," He said. "Police cars began flying by me."
As he neared the intersection of Routes 9 and 520, he saw police cars and officers on foot beginning to surround the bus.
"There were 19 police cars that I counted and probably more," he said. "It was all the police there, that's what made me think it was something big."
He slowed down for a moment to watch, then proceeded through the intersection, just as police were stopping northbound traffic on Route 9.
As he headed south, Budzash said he could see northbound traffic backing up all the way to at least Freehold.
"It was a very bad traffic jam," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.