Cracks In The Fort
There have been four break-ins over the past three months at Fort Totten. Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
By Liz Goff
Fort Totten in Bayside has stood as a symbol of national security and strength for more than 100 years but this week officials revealed that there are some cracks in the fort’s armor.
A series of April break-ins on the side of the fort currently controlled by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) has resulted in an investigation by City officials, and sparked worry amongst high-level NYPD Counter-Terrorism officials that the culprits could be linked to terror.
A high-ranking NYPD Counterterror-ism offical told the Tribune this week that four break-ins have occurred on the Fire Department’s side of the Fort over the last three months.
Officials said the thieves have walked away with $700 in cash in one burglary, and stole from a commissary locker at the Fire Department base.
When officials moved the cash to a safe, it too was burglarized, officials said. Three radios were also stolen during the break-in.
In the most recent break-in on April 13, thieves fled with FDNY uniforms and narcotics stored at the FDNY Emergency Service training facility, officials said.
The items stolen included six FDNY coats, at least six radios, 20 vials of valium and 26 vials of morphine, the officials said.
The thieves left the fort in a marked FDNY Chevy Suburban, which was discovered missing at about 7 a.m.
It was recovered an hour later at 212th Street and 15th Avenue in Bayside, just blocks from Fort Totten, NYPD officials said.
Federal agents and city cops assigned to the Joint Terrorist Task Force have joined a probe into the break-ins to determine the possibility that the vehicle and uniforms were stolen for use as disguises by terrorists, sources said.
The City Department of Investigation (DOI), which investigates corruption by city officials, is also conducting an internal probe, but spokesperson Emily Guest said that terrorism is in no way an issue.
She said, “I can tell you there is no terrorism angle here, but there is an investigation and it is ongoing.”
Fire Department officials did not comment directly on the break-ins, although a spokesperson said, “The Department of Investigations is investigating the break-ins and the Fire Marshalls from the Fire Department are working with them.”
A source at the Fire Department added that the break-ins “could be internal,” which is why DOI is involved.
Insiders claim that new fencing has been installed on Fort Totten to separate the FDNY portion from the U.S. Army section in recent weeks.
Also noticeable was increased security at the one entrance to the fort – on Fort Totten Road off the Cross Island Expressway, sources said.
Visitors to Fort Totten are greeted at the gate by a security guard from Lansdell Protective Agency.
A Landsell Protective Agency officer also patrols the FDNY controlled portion of Fort Totten, sources said.
FDNY insiders at Fort Totten said that for Fire officials “it’s easy” to come and go from the facility without security “scrutiny.”
Sources also said almost anyone in a uniform is “waved-in” to the facility by security guards at the fort entrance.
But police and fire officials said that is about to change.
“There is an obvious security problem at the site,” sources said. “It’s easier to get a truck out of Fort Totten than it is to get sneakers onto an airplane,” they said.
Officials refused to comment on new plans to secure the fort-both internally and at entrances and exits.
They did say, however, that changes are imminent-especially with the “tight-knit” security “web” that will cover the city this summer, through the presidential conventions and the election.
A request for comment on who hired Lansdell to provide security at Fort Totten remained unanswered at presstime.
According to the company’s web site, “Lansdell Protective Agency, Inc. is the 24th largest Security Company in the nation dispatching approximately 1,800 security guards a day interspersed between offices in Manhattan, Queens, Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.”
Landsell provides security for businesses including “airlines, banks, freight warehouses, real estate, retail stores, shows/exhibitions, shipping corporations and marine/waterfront facilities. . . All prospective employees go through an intensive background check, drug test and are psychologically screened before job placement. Also, each security officer is trained and licensed in accordance with state agencies’ rules and regulations. We have an in-house training division and the Department of Criminal Justice Services has approved our curriculum,” their website reads.
What’s Up At The Fort?
For nearly 150 years, Bayside’s Fort Totten stood as an armed and operational United States Army base, protecting New York and its residents through the Civil War, the British invasion of 1812, and the feared Spanish invasion of 1898.
Thousands of soldiers were trained and quartered on the historic property, which was commissioned in 1857 and named for Brevet Major General Joseph Totten in 1901.
In 1995, the fort was decommissioned as an Army base, and after hearings, was set to be transferred to New York City to be controlled by the Parks Department and the Fire Department.
Last year, 30.9 acres was officially transferred to the Fire Department for use as a training facility. Fire officials announced their intention to turn the fort into a Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness – a plan still in a “development stage,” sources said. FDNY officials, this year, applied for a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security to establish the center.
The United States Coast Guard has also been given 9.6 acres of land.
The Parks Department side of the fort, on the other hand, is still in the process of being transferred, although the agency has broken ground on the first part of the project to beautify the entrance to the historic portion.
The $730,000 will beautify and improve the safety of the entrance to the historical part of the Fort, which includes a tunnel and walkway. It calls for the installation of handrails, lighting and signage, as well as paving and horticultural work.
According to a spokesperson for the Parks Department, “Basically, the draft deed has been prepared and what happens is the Parks and Recreation lawyers have to make small changes, and then because of historic monuments, the National Parks Service and Army need to make change, and it’s going back and forth . . . It’s going to happen soon.”
The Parks side will include a restaurant, a museum and public parkland.