July 11, 2005 People traveling between St. Thomas and St. John on the ferry now have to show identification. This directive comes after the United States raised its terror alert in response to Thursday's terrorist bombings in London.
On Friday the U.S. Coast Guard upped its Marine Security alert level from "MARSEC 1 to MARSEC 2." Lt. Chris Gagnon at the Coast Guard's St. Thomas office said that ferry companies have a plan approved by Coast Guard headquarters that spells out what they will do under each level of alert. "It's up to them," he said.
Plans vary by company, but both St. John-based companies, Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures, are asking for identification as part of their plans.
Gagnon said that while the security staff previously checked to see that each passenger had a ticket, they are now putting a face with that ticket by asking for identification.
He said all ferry companies operating out of the U.S. Virgin Islands, including those that carry passengers to the British Virgin Islands, have such a plan.
At Native Son Inc., a Tortola ferry company that takes passengers between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, a staff member who would give his name only as Vern said passengers always had to show either a passport or birth certificate, as well as a picture identification when they checked in for the ferry trip.
Kenrick Augustus, manager at the St. John-based Transportation Services, said that if the alert goes up to MARSEC 3, the companies will have to provide a manifest listing all their passengers.
He said Transportation Services also now screens the bags of 14 percent of the passengers with bags. He said this was part of their plan under MARSEC 2.
He and Delrise Varlack, manager at Varlack Ventures, both said the security staff checking identification is hired by the V.I. Port Authority. Port Authority spokesman Monifa Marrero did not return a phone call requesting more information about staff training.
Gagnon said the barges that go between St. Thomas and St. John have no such identity requirement plan because they do not carry more than 150 passengers.
Mel Vanterpool, who heads the local Homeland Security Office, said precautions like this one are necessary because it's not a matter of if terrorism will strike the Virgin Islands, but when.
"We already have terrorists living among us," he said, declining to be specific.
He said that terrorists would be attracted to the Virgin Islands because they enjoy recreation just as much as everyone else. And he said terrorists could enter the territory's porous borders along with the large number of undocumented immigrants who arrive regularly.
Vanterpool pointed out that domestic terrorism was also an issue.
Residents, however, questioned this latest wrinkle in their daily commute.
David Holzman, who commutes regularly from his home on St. Thomas to St. John, said it appears to be selective enforcement. He said that he's seen the security staff allow some people on without identification.
St. Thomas resident Bonnie Shinn said that the security staff refused to allow her 14-year-old niece visiting from Utah on board but allowed others to board. She said her niece is white and the two other people who were allowed on the ferry while her niece was in line were black.
"They can be selective," Shinn said.
Augustus said that could happen because the security staff knew the passengers. However, Shinn said that in one instance, the black passenger made a fuss and declared he had lived on St. John for 23 years and didn't need to show identification.
Holzman questioned the value in spending money on checking identifications when it was possible to buy fake identification at numerous places around St. Thomas. He said this was common practice with undocumented immigrants.
Holzman also questioned the training received by the security staff, which until the London attacks, only opened and closed the gates to the fence.
"We're paying these supposed security guards to harass people," he said, adding that he doubts that the security staff have the training to deal with a terrorism situation should one arise.
Holzman said that during rush hour, it takes another 10 to 15 minutes for passengers to board the ferry. He said that since the ferry companies don't start boarding early to compensate for this, passengers are late arriving.
Greg Miller, who also commutes from St. Thomas to St. John, said that his St. John-based engineering company had to send a vehicle on the barge to St. Thomas to pick up workers because they didn't have identification.
And he said there are no signs advising people that they need to show identification. He said this has proved confusing for tourists, who often face a less than civil security staff.
He said the identification situation may convince tourists to go elsewhere.
This latest requirement comes after the Port Authority installed fences on the docks at Red Hook and Cruz Bay last year. There is also a rope at the downtown Charlotte Amalie bulkhead where the ferries arrive and depart.
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