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Camp David's neighbors wary

Fear: Thurmont residents who have proudly shared their neighborhood with presidents now find the longtime retreat a little too close to home.

By David L. Greene

Sun National Staff

September 17, 2001

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THURMONT -- People here in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains are used to presidential visits. They know that the Camp David retreat is tucked up in the hills and that President Bush spends many weekends there. They typically think little of it.

But this weekend was far different.

"Everybody's worried about him being up here," said Richard Stely, assistant manager at the Direct-to-You gas station in Thurmont. "We feel like our life's at risk. Just take him someplace else in a situation like this."

Residents of churchgoing towns such as Thurmont and Smithsburg, each only several miles from Camp David, say that in the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Bush's presence this weekend made them feel like a target. They hear federal officials, who won't rule out more terrorist attacks, and they wonder what would happen to their communities if a plane nose-dived into the retreat.

An absurd fear a week ago, it now may be justified because, as residents point out, Camp David was initially believed to be among the targets Tuesday. Early reports suggested that the hijacked plane that crashed in Somerset County, Pa., was bound for the retreat, though that theory was later put in doubt.

"There is a heightened tension," said Joe Forrest, who owns the Busy Bee Bakery, a favorite stop for doughnut-seeking former presidents, including Bush's father.

"People around here would always joke and say, 'We're so close to Camp David and Washington, if anyone ever attacks, they'll get us first,' " said Forrest. "People don't laugh now."

A big question on many minds is why television networks and newspapers reported that Bush was here.

"It's stupid," said Rachel Knight, a 30-year-old single mother from Thurmont. "Why make things easier for the terrorists? With everything going on, we're a little more nervous than if he's just on a vacation. It's different. The whole world is looking at the U.S. and looking close at where the president is."

Stely, the gas station manager, sees it like this: If Afghanistan has not pinpointed the hiding spot of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in Tuesday's attacks, why should the United States show its hand?

"They're not going to tell us," Stely insisted. "Why give away our secrets?"

The president returned to the White House yesterday afternoon. Vice President Dick Cheney spent the weekend and much of last week at the leafy retreat.

As residents of Thurmont, population 5,000, go about their lives, they typically pay no attention to the president's comings and goings. When the White House holds a summit here -- as it did with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in February -- people tolerate the onslaught of aides, advisers and reporters, and are accustomed to it.

Stories abound about presidents driving down the mountain to mingle with residents of Thurmont or Smithsburg and about celebrities spending time with the chief executive (former President Bill Clinton once brought actor Ted Danson along for a golf game).

At the Cozy Country Inn, which has rooms and cottages named for presidents dating to Franklin D. Roosevelt, owner Gerald Freeze takes a certain pride in being the sleeping spot of choice for many of the people accompanying presidents. Smiling smugly, he says he always knows before the public when the president is planning a trip because reservations start rolling in.

This time, Freeze said, security personnel stopped by to tell him that if anyone asked whether Bush were at Camp David, he was to say he didn't know. "We were told not to tell anybody he was here," Freeze said. "But then I turn on the TV and they say he's coming. They should be hush-hush. You're just telling the terrorists who may be looking for him. Then they don't need spies in the skies to find him -- just a radio."

The White House announced last week that, because of the heightened security, aides would not be releasing the whereabouts of the president and vice president as far in advance as usual. But by Friday, word that Bush was coming to Camp David was out. And Saturday, television viewers saw shots of the president conferring with his national security team inside one of Camp David's lodges.

Fear is not universal here. New York, Washington and other big cities are surely more attractive targets for terrorists, some residents say.

"There's just nothing there" at Camp David, said 62-year-old Paul Finneyfrock, a lifelong Thurmont resident.

"I can understand in Washington, D.C., being restless," said Finneyfrock. "I don't think we have to worry."

But hearts began to beat fast Tuesday when initial reports suggested that at least one hijacked airplane that remained in the air had Camp David as its possible target.

Diann Metzger of Smithsburg was at work in Pennsylvania when the reports came in. She said her first thought was of her 5-year-old daughter, Ashlee. The girl was in a classroom at Smithsburg Elementary School, and Metzger wondered whether an attack on Camp David, a few miles away, could harm her.

"This is just such a rural area," she said. "But I guess if you want to target something, this is prime when [a president] is here."

Metzger said she did not discuss Camp David, or her fears, with her daughter. "I don't think she would comprehend at her age that something could happen here."