Totten on military alert following terror attacks

By Kathianne Boniello

In the three weeks since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that toppled the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon, Fort Totten has been on heightened military alert, displacing the nonprofit organizations that make the base their home.

While the base still houses the 77th Regional Support Command of the U.S. Army and a U.S. Coast Guard station, a number of nonprofit groups have been operating out of Totten since 1995 as the military prepared to turn ownership of 120 acres at the fort to the city for parkland by next year.

The base, which still features 1950s-style barracks, has recently been home to Federal Emergency Management Agency teams working on the cleanup at Ground Zero where the World Trade Center had stood, Totten historian Jack Fein said.

Under the heightened security at Totten since the Twin Towers attacks, uniformed military soldiers have been checking each driver’s photo identification and restricting those who have access to the fort.

Fein, 85, has worked at Fort Totten since 1936 when he first arrived there at the age of 17 as part of the Army.

On the extra security at Totten, Fein said Monday “they are taking extreme caution and care. Military police check everyone who comes in, even me.”

Ann Jawin, executive director of the Queens Women’s Center, said only staff members of her organization have been allowed onto the fort since Sept. 11.

“We’re coping, but it’s difficult,” Jawin said of the center's efforts to hold its classes and support groups at different locations around Queens. “We’re getting calls like mad, and that’s made it very apparent to me that we are needed more than ever.”

Geraldine Spinella, president of the Bayside Historical Society, only staff from her group has been allowed onto the fort, making future events held at the organization’s Totten headquarters uncertain.

Like the Army, the Coast Guard also has been on alert since the terrorist attacks.

Chief Brandon Brewer, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said its crews in the New York region, including Totten, have been providing security for the port area and enforcing restrictions on commercial and recreational marine traffic.

“All the Coast Guard is on alert,” he said. Brewer said he was not sure if the planned transfer of the Totten Coast Guard station to the Merchant Marine Academy on Long Island would be affected.

Jordan Goldes, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside), said he had not heard whether the increased military effort nationwide would have an impact on Totten’s transfer to the city.

Peter Koutroubis, a representative of the U.S. Army who has been overseeing the transfer of the property, said he had no information on any possible change in the status of the transfer.

“There could be some delays but not significant ones,” Koutroubis said of the transfer.

Koutroubis said the possibility of the Army’s taking back use of Fort Totten was “very highly unlikely.”

Fort Totten was built on Willets Point on Little Neck Bay in 1857 as a Civil War fort to defend against Confederate raiders attacking New York Harbor by coming down the Long Island Sound.

The fort was used as a training camp for troops going to Europe during World War I, and the first American unit called up for active service in that war came from the fort.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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