Too Close for Comfort

The weird coincidences between last week's terrorist attacks and David Hagberg's novels have been keeping the author up at night

Early Tuesday, just after the attacks, friends and family called and e-mailed me from Mexico, Canada, and England asking if San Francisco was OK. They were distraught, terrified, empathetic, because they live in countries where people feel connected to the chaos that defines the rest of the world. I had to tell them everything was OK -- San Francisco had never been better.

Riding past City Hall, desolate since Willie Brown ordered evacuation of Civic Center earlier in the day, I was surprised to find that the city felt peaceful, like early Christmas morning. The Financial District was an empty skyscraper forest; the sidewalks, the asphalt, the entryways were filled with only quiet, pleasant shadows. Despite the attacks' portent, it felt safe, too. Perhaps it should have; our mayor, our fire chief, our chief of police, and other officials were holed up in an emergency command center, where they spent much of the week. The city was put on formal alert, government buildings were evacuated, and the command team called in off-duty police. About two dozen empty city buses were put at the ready along China Basin Canal, lest large groups of people need transporting quickly. The Coast Guard stepped up vessel inspections, boarding ships before allowing them to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. The restrooms at BART stations, meanwhile, were all locked. BART conductors were advised to keep a lookout for suspicious characters. More BART police were put on duty. The Golden Gate Bridge was closed to pedestrians and cyclists, and bridge personnel were put on alert for a possible evacuation of automobiles.

All this was bunkum, of course. There is simply no way to prevent all possible terrorist scenarios. A single, briefly mislaid suitcase bomb could puncture the BART tunnel, killing hundreds. ("The sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway was a real eye-opener for us," a BART spokesman tells me.) A nuclear device in the trunk of a Ford Fiesta could eliminate the Financial District. And that's without considering the likeliest target.

As David Hagberg noted, "There ain't nothing like the Golden Gate Bridge. If I sat back and looked at symbols of the United States, it's the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, the White House, the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It's one of our great symbols," he explained. "It's our Eiffel Tower."

In Joshua's Hammer, Osama bin Laden is driven mad with rage when the U.S. sends cruise missiles into his encampment. He becomes determined to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge.

"He's hacked, he's pissed," Hagberg explained. "He's negotiated with a Soviet breakaway province for a small nuclear device."

The device is placed on a ship bound for America, disguised as a life raft. The ship arrives in New York, is put in dry dock for nine months, then sets sail for San Francisco, deadly cargo aboard. The terrorists, who by now have commandeered the ship, transfer the nuclear weapon to a tugboat just outside the Golden Gate. By the time the nuclear weapon arrives under the span, the bomb's timer shows seven seconds left.

But the terrorists hadn't counted on Kirk McGarvey: CIA agent, family man, 200-pound Voltaire scholar with abs of steel.

"With seven seconds on the bomb, McGarvey gets aboard the pilot boat, figures the device out, and saves the day," Hagberg said. "During the last seconds before planes hit the World Trade tower, would that I had a Kirk McGarvey."

After speaking with Hagberg, I thought I'd check on the Golden Gate Bridge firsthand. The bridge's tow-truck drivers had been working double shifts since Tuesday, driving vans back and forth across the span to transport bicyclists, who for now have been banned from the bridge's footpath. After clamping my bike into a specially equipped trailer, I clambered aboard the white Golden Gate Bridge Authority van with five other cyclists. Cruising past the bridge's first tower I asked the driver if he had been afraid.

"I was driving the tow truck all night Tuesday. And yeah, whenever I'd see a large truck or anything like that, I'd be sure to keep my distance," he said, adding that he's been working 16 hours a day ever since, driving across the bridge hundreds of times. With time, the state of emergency preparedness became prosaic.

"Now," he said. "I'm not afraid."

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