Oxnard police temporarily evacuated more than 3,500 workers from Ventura County’s only high-rise office towers and a nearby hotel Tuesday morning after a crank caller threatened to blow up the buildings at noon.
Employees at the Oxnard Financial Plaza--a cluster of office buildings near Vineyard Avenue and the Ventura Freeway--were herded to their cars and ordered to leave the area after the bomb threat was received at 9:30 a.m.
About a dozen firefighters and 30 police officers scoured the 21-story Union Bank building, the 14-story Ventura County National Bank building and the Hilton Hotel before retreating to wait out the noon deadline.
The deadline passed without incident and workers were allowed to return about 1 p.m.
“The chances are about one in a million that there really is a bomb,” said Oxnard developer Martin V. Smith, who built the twin towers and who is a tenant in the larger of the two structures. “We just can’t take a chance.”
Men and women in business suits streamed out of the two office buildings, carrying files and portable phones and computer discs.
The evacuation, which took about an hour to complete, caused traffic jams in the plaza’s parking lot and on streets leading out of the commercial center.
Chemotherapy patients at Futurecare, an out-patient center for cancer sufferers, were forced to continue their intravenous treatments in the parking lot after they were ordered out of their first-story office.
“I didn’t know this is what they meant by out patient,” said Ventura resident Cindy Eggert, waiting for an ambulance while plastic tubes fed anti-cancer medicine into one arm.
At the California Central Coast World Trade Center Assn., workers said they immediately thought of the Feb. 26 explosion at the World Trade Center in New York City when word filtered up to their 10th-story office of the bomb threat.
“We took it very seriously,” said Shawn Gallegly, the association’s assistant director. “Given what has happened in recent months, we didn’t want to take any chances.”
Police said a man phoned the Hilton Hotel and reported that a bomb was set to go off at the Union Bank building about noon. The caller said a second bomb would explode minutes later at one of the smaller buildings, but did not specify which one.
Teams of police officers and firefighters conducted a floor-by-floor search for the bombs. The Sheriff’s Department bomb squad and a bomb-sniffing dog were put on alert but were not used.
At five minutes before noon, police closed a stretch of Vineyard Avenue from Oxnard Boulevard to the Ventura Freeway for about 10 minutes.
Five minutes past noon, after the deadline had passed without an explosion, police reopened Vineyard Avenue but refused to allow employees to return to work.
“We’re going to wait and see if this guy’s watch is working properly,” police spokesman David Keith said.
Richard Spencer, executive vice president for Martin V. Smith & Associates, said even the best efforts of his company’s private security firm could not prevent someone from planting a bomb.
“If somebody wants to do it, they are going to figure out a way to do it,” he said.
The bomb threat was the first at the Financial Plaza, a sprawling office complex that broke ground in the late 1960s. The 21-story tower is the tallest building between Los Angeles and San Jose.
Smith won approval last month to construct a third office tower, a 15-story glass building that will join the two other skyscrapers on the city’s northeast side.
Spencer said he plans to review Tuesday’s evacuation and identify areas for improvement.
“We have a plan in place now but to say that is foolproof would be foolhardy,” he said.
The order to evacuate failed to budge Jeff Crabtree, general manager of KDAR Radio, an FM Christian station, which is headquartered on the top floor of the smaller bank building.
Determined not to go off the air, he sent his employees out and--for the first time in his radio career--stepped behind the microphone to give weather updates and play commercials. He was the only worker in either bank building to defy the evacuation order.
“Somebody had to keep the station on the air,” he reasoned. “I guess the captain has to go down with the ship.”