Agent Testifies He Saw Van Before Trade Center Blast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Secret Service agent injured in the World Trade Center bombing testified Tuesday that he noticed a yellow van in the underground parking garage just minutes before he was knocked unconscious by the blast as he stepped out of his car.

Testifying on the second day of the trial of four suspects in the terrorism case, Agent Jan Gilhooly was the first witness to suggest a link between the Feb. 26 explosion and Mohammed A. Salameh, a principal defendant who authorities claim rented a yellow van used to carry the homemade 1,200-pound bomb.

Gilhooly, who was hospitalized briefly after the blast with facial cuts, an eye injury and chest abrasions, was immediately challenged by defense attorney Robert E. Precht on the grounds that he failed to mention the yellow van when he spoke with the FBI the day after the bombing.

Gilhooly replied that, although he initially was able to recall other details of the garage scene--including a black Volvo parked with its hazard lights flashing--he had forgotten about the yellow van. He attributed his memory loss to "post-explosion trauma."

He conceded to Precht, who represents Salameh, and to other defense attorneys who jumped to their feet, that he recalled the van after learning in early March that the FBI had traced one to Salameh from an identification number on a twisted piece of the charred chassis found in the blast debris.

Prosecutors said that Salameh rented the van from the Jersey City Ryder agency three days before the bombing, although Salameh has claimed that it was stolen from him later.

Besides Salameh, 25, the other defendants are Nidal Ayyad, 25, Mohammad Ahmad Ajaj, 27, and Mahmud Abouhalima, 33.

All are charged in a 13-count indictment with conspiring to bomb a building used in interstate commerce, causing deaths and injuries, and transporting explosives across the New York-New Jersey state line. If convicted, they face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Gilhooly's testimony followed earlier accounts Tuesday by eight other witnesses of a scene of panic and confusion in the trade center's twin 110-story towers in the hours after the blast.

Prosecutor Gilmore Childers has called the episode "the single most destructive act of terrorism ever committed here in the United States."

The witnesses told of breathing dense, black smoke and seeing scores of injured people as they made their way down darkened stairways to the street. One man told of losing his best friend among the six people who were killed in the noontime explosion.

The trial is expected to last three months.

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