Baltimore Police Colonel Rich Worley briefs the media after a suspicious vehicle caused much of downtown Baltimore to come to a standstill Monday afternoon.
Baltimore emergency officials evacuated a large area of downtown Monday after an unoccupied van loaded with containers of possibly stolen gasoline was discovered in the parking garage of one of the city’s most venerable companies, officials said.
The widespread evacuation of T. Rowe Price Group and other firms in several high rise buildings downtown snarled traffic, sparked Sept. 11 anxiety and transformed the heart of the city’s business and tourist district into a crime scene tied off with yellow tape.
However, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment later said about 80 gallons of diesel fuel was offloaded from the vehicle.
The worrisome incident began shortly after 11 a.m. when police received a call about the suspicious vehicle in the parking garage of 100 E. Pratt St., home to T. Rowe Price, one of the city’s largest private employers. Officials cordoned off a four-block area north of where the Inner Harbor meets downtown as police and fire investigators conducted a sweeping search of surrounding parking garages.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young took to Twitter in the afternoon to dispel fears of a potential bomb.
“After several hours of investigating a suspicious vehicle, no bomb was detected,” Young tweeted. “We are currently in the process of conducting precautionary sweeps in an effort to ensure public safety. These sweeps are expected to take several hours.”
By around 6 p.m., the van with Pennsylvania plates that read “motor home” was towed from the seventh floor of the garage to the street. Police officers, firefighters and other government officials gathered around the van to examine the two large tanks and several hoses inside and to empty out the fuel.
"I’ve never seen that much gas,” said Lewis Peterson, the tow truck driver.
Peterson said it took more than 20 minutes of cautious navigating to tow the van through the garage to the street.
"I had to be real careful because if something sparked it could have caught fire,” he said.
Baltimore’s arson unit is investigating but no suspects have been identified. Baltimore officials investigating the van were assisted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Baltimore Police Col. Sheree Briscoe told City Council members that officers had evacuated a four-block area around the T. Rowe Price building at 100 E. Pratt St. — an area that includes the neighboring Transamerica tower and the Gallery at Harborplace mall. Motorists and pedestrians were advised to avoid the area while authorities investigate.
Monday’s massive emergency response was aided by Capital police from Washington and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who were concerned for what they described as "elite visitors” expected to visit Baltimore Thursday.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said on Twitter that “state law enforcement officials" also were assisting with the investigation.
“Thank you to the police and first responders who acted quickly to secure the area,” Hogan tweeted.
Nearly 1,000 T. Rowe Price employees were evacuated by Monday afternoon as the investment giant shifted trading operations to offices outside the city and worked to find alternative transportation for those whose cars remained parked in the cordoned-off garage, said spokesman Brian Lewbart.
“Our first priority is for the safety of our associates,” Lewbart said.
The company, which manages $1.07 trillion in assets, was given the all clear for employees to return to the office at 4:30 p.m.
T. Rowe Price employee Manan Katohora was coming out of a meeting in the building when the fire alarm went off. The building had a fire drill just two weeks ago, so Katohora said he was not surprised when he was told to evacuate.
Around noon, Katohora and several colleagues received an automated message from the company explaining the discovery of the suspicious vehicle.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve seen this much yellow tape,” Katohora said while watching police survey the area near Redwood and Light streets.
A suspicious van with gasoline bins in it is found to be harmless after much of downtown Baltimore is evacuated.
T. Rowe Price arranged for shuttle buses to take employees to the company’s Owings Mills offices. Employees also were told they would be reimbursed for the cost of ride sharing services. Katohora called an Uber but said the car was unable to get close enough to the scene to pick him up.
Marcelo Velasco-Forest, a financial adviser with Merrill Lynch, was working on the building’s 23rd floor when the fire alarm sounded. He too initially thought it was another drill.
“At first, we stood just outside in the Inner Harbor, but they then evacuated us farther away,” Velasco-Forest said.
Officials first began to evacuate only 100 E. Pratt St., which also houses the offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers. But about 80 minutes later, emergency crews began expanding the evacuation zone near the Inner Harbor to include The Gallery shopping mall, the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace and Brookshire Suites hotels. Then, at around 1:30 p.m., 22 Light Street was evacuated.
Inside the Transamerica building at 100 Light St., alarms sounded and lights flashed off and on, causing one worker to instantly think about Wednesday’s anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“You’re wary because we’re in a tall high rise just like on 9/11 and just two days away,” said Nicole Gilmore, a 42-year-old receptionist at the Baker Donelson law firm.
She said staff got an email at around 11 a.m. that the east side of the lobby would be closed because of a suspicious vehicle parked across the street. But an hour and a half later, alarms sounded and everyone was forced to evacuate.
“When you hear something like that you don’t want to think the worst but you do,” Gilmore said. “I just pray no one gets hurt.”
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area across from the building was scattered with people dressed in business clothes after the evacuation. Many were clustered together talking, wondering aloud about what was happening. One woman said many people were just using this time to take their regular lunch hour. Several people walked up to crime scene tape to get a view of what was going on.
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Gilmore was glad her car was parked in a garage outside the evacuation area. But even if it had been trapped behind the crime scene tape, she wouldn’t have complained as police officers and firefighters worked to secure the scene.
“Our lives are more important than the day to day,” she said.
Not everyone was as patient.
Leonard Coulson and his girlfriend were looking to spend a day off work at the aquarium. The two hadn’t been down to the Inner Harbor in over 30 years. They thought the change of scenery from Middle River in Baltimore County could be fun.
The couple arrived downtown at around 11:30 a.m. and parked in a garage without any problems. But by the time they finished at the aquarium and chowing down on Potbelly sandwiches, they were trapped. He understood the precaution but said it was still annoying.