Compensation uncertain in wake of bomb threats

HOLLIDAYSBURG – As police continue their investigation into the recent twin threats to the Hollidaysburg area, the details of compensation remain uncertain for business owners who lost tens of thousands of dollars and for taxpayers who covered the cost for an enormous emergency response.

Both threats turned out to be false.

The emailed threats – first of a bomb in the Blair County Courthouse on Oct. 23, then of water contamination and more bombs on Oct. 25 – drove some residents from their homes for several hours, shuttered businesses across Hollidaysburg and forced tap customers as far as East Freedom to rely on bottled water for a couple of days.

For restaurants operating on typically thin margins, two days out of service represented a huge expense.

“It’s safe to say we were down thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars,” said Calvin Russell, whose restaurant The Dream was closed for the weekend following the unfounded water threat. “Everybody works on a small profit line, especially in the food industry.”

At restaurants and cafes across the borough, employees paid on an hourly rate and relying on tips found themselves suddenly without two days’ income. Some 50 employees at Marzoni’s Brick Oven & Brewing Co. lost work over the weekend, Manager Ryan Mazoff said.

“As far as sales [lost], we’re probably looking at anything from $15,000 to $20,000, I’d say,” Mazoff said. Marzoni’s is located just outside the water advisory area, but managers closed just to be safe, he said.

It’s not clear whether any business owner will be able to recoup those losses.

At least one mentioned terrorism insurance as a possibility. According to an April congressional report, at least 60 percent of American businesses are insured against terrorism, and the policies are often inexpensive in low-risk areas.

But while the threats may have resembled terrorism to some, they never came to fruition, and no attacks were made. Even so, federal guidelines for terrorism insurance are substantially more stringent: The attack must cause massive damage in an attempt to coerce government policy.

“It didn’t happen. … But I’d rather take the loss than have it actually happen,” Russell said.

A more likely route for restitution may exist for emergency departments, whose members must work overtime and call up expensive equipment when threats like last month’s are made. Police from Hollidaysburg, Allegheny Township, Freedom Township and Martinsburg could be spotted around the courthouse after the Oct. 23 bomb threat, and an explosives team from State College rushed to the scene.

Hollidaysburg Police Chief Jeffrey Ketner has indicated he will seek restitution for those expenses.

There’s ample precedent for police restitution. Sue Griep, victim-witness coordinator at the Blair County District Attorney’s Office, cited a recent case against a methamphetamine-lab operator whose arrest drew a state police chemical investigation team.

The operator was ordered to pay more than $1,000 for the added expense, Griep said.

“We’re looking at that more and more, to add things like that,” she said of restitution.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard said compensation in any case must be tied directly to the charges filed. She stressed that she can’t discuss the threat case specifically but said it might be difficult to tally the monetary damage done to the public.

“Is it possible that there’s more to be considered? Certainly,” she said. “But how would we get the information? How would we canvass the entire community? We would almost have to do a blanket mass-mailing.”

For the restaurants and cafes that closed on a normally profitable weekend, owners and employees may simply have to accept the loss. Even if they could find a means to demand compensation, it’s far from certain that the suspect could cover such hefty expenses over several municipalities.

“It’s a loss for all of us,” Russell said. “The bills keep coming in when the doors are closed.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.