North Island Naval Air Station is impressive from the sky — 2600 acres dotted with buildings and trucks and cars. Looking at an aerial photo taken when 4 of the U.S.’s 12 aircraft carriers were in port, you would find more to be impressed about. There they are — the Constellation, the Carl Vinson, the Nimitz, and the John C. Stennis, parallel parked at pier side. How does one maneuver something so big into a space so small?
Tom Fitzgerald, a retired Navy captain who lives in Coronado, is proud of his former employer, but he worries about it too. In early March, on the day after the Navy announced that its latest antiterrorist effort would be to erect small-boat barrier booms and expand the security zones in San Diego Bay, Fitzgerald said, “The Navy has taken a page from the Cole, but what about Oklahoma City?”
Fitzgerald’s Navy specialty was logistics, but he is not a military authority of any kind any longer. After 26 years of active duty, he is now merely one of those citizens with an idea, who attend public meetings and write letters to the editor. Frankly, Fitzgerald said, the vulnerability of the carriers from a land-based attack had not occurred to him until he gave a tour of the base to two friends from the Midwest who visited him and his wife a few years ago. This was not too long after the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000, that killed 17 people, including seaman recruit Lakiba Nicole Palmer of San Diego, and well after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1997.
It was also before Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al Midhar, who lived for a time in Clairemont’s Parkwood Apartments and later Lemon Grove, helped crash American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. It’s believed that the two were part of an alternative plan, to attack the nuclear-powered Stennis, the only carrier in port on September 11. Both men were observed by the Central Intelligence Agency in January 2000 at an al-Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
“And so we drove up alongside one of the carriers. And in their naïveté or innocence or whatever it was, right out of the Midwest, my friends said, ‘Holy smoke! We could reach out and almost touch it. Isn’t that dangerous?’ Well, at the time, we went on our merry way, enjoying their visit. When something is so familiar to you, you tend not to notice it. But after they went home, I got to thinking, ‘My golly!’ What concerns me is the explosive power that can be packed into a small van, much less a large semi, and the damage that could be done.”
Fitzgerald said he began to “bug” the Navy about this worry of his. “I told them, ‘You really, really gotta do something. And you’re the experts. You decide what. But you oughta at least change the traffic pattern.’ ”
He stressed that he does not believe the carriers are vulnerable to being sunk at the pier. “They are built to withstand crashes from planes on deck, okay? But if something occurs that causes one of them to be sidelined for three weeks or a month or whatever, the implications!” — that is, in terms of our preparedness for war. “Most branches of the service go to great lengths to protect their assets. If you drive onto an Air Force base, I assure you that you would get nowhere near where the bombers are parked. If you were to drive into Miramar, you would not get near that flight line.”
Fitzgerald’s imagination conjures land-based attacks that would occur during the morning rush hour, when the gate is busiest. The modus operandi could be to use a combination of vehicles. He imagines, for example, a terrorist blowing up an 18-wheeler packed with explosives next to a tanker truck filled with gasoline. (The explosion of a fuel truck was what caused the damage and deaths at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi on August 8, 1998, that killed more than 200 Kenyans and 46 Americans.)
He also worries about the way the carriers are opened up when they’re in port, making moored ones more vulnerable than ones at sea, in his opinion. “On the side, the carriers have those great big hangars.” The hangars are equipped with elevators that raise and lower the aircraft from the hangar deck up to the flight deck. “Well, when the ships are in port, they lower those wharf-side, hangar-deck elevators so that people, freight, and equipment can get on and off the ship on a gangway. So, goodness! Somebody could drive up alongside, and the blast, just going through the open side of the ship, into the interior would do — “ He stopped himself. “I’m not a marine architect. I’m not a marine engineer. And you can quibble about whether it would damage this or that. But I’m not going to quibble. I’m just going to say we’re taking a risk that I don’t think we should be taking, given the world situation.”
Fitzgerald believes it wouldn’t be difficult for a terrorist to get past the sentry at the main gate. His own stickered car could be stolen for the afternoon, he speculated. Or somebody else’s could simply be bought by the enemy. “There are hundreds of used cars bought and sold by sailors in the area every year. And you’re supposed to scrape your sticker off the bumper before you hand it over to the new owner. But if you’re being transferred, and you’ve got a pickup truck or something, you may not have time to attend to every detail. You just sell it and you move on.”
In more than one of his dozen letters to the editor on this subject, all published in the Coronado Eagle & Tribune, Fitzgerald has offered to give all takers a tour of the base so they could see the situation for themselves. No one has accepted his invitation. “I’ll tell you what I did get, though: some anonymous phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey, Bud, I don’t know who you think you are, but you’re giving aid and comfort to the blankety-blank terrorists.’ One guy said that if he were the base commander he would remove my car’s sticker. But you expect that kind of reaction.