PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — The words “bomb on the bus” heard from a cell phone set it all off: Downtown Portsmouth shut down, businesses and homes evacuated, sharpshooters and an armored vehicle rolling in.
The parked Greyhound, which was headed from Bangor, Maine, to New York City, was surrounded for nine hours Thursday, until the man who took the call, an immigrant from the African nation of Burundi, finally emerged. Police now say their “appropriate” show of force so frightened the passenger that he refused to leave the bus until a family member helped talk him out.
“It wasn’t long before we realized he was scared. We didn’t feel it was criminal intent,” Portsmouth Police Chief David Ferland said Friday, a day after the bomb scare that shut down the heart of this bustling seaside community popular with tourists.
Authorities did not release the name of the passenger, who Ferland said will not face charges. Police say he was a native Swahili speaker who understood limited English. He boarded the bus in Portland.
Two of the 16 other passengers were charged with misdemeanors for their behavior after the bus was evacuated.
The ordeal on the bus started Thursday morning when a passenger overheard “a strange man” speaking a foreign language on a cell phone, police said.
The passenger called 911 after hearing someone on the other end of the phone shouting about “a bomb on the bus,” authorities said.
That call prompted authorities to evacuate buildings and streets and to surround the bus with a bomb squad and sharpshooters. A half-dozen federal agencies rushed to assist.
The caller was not identified and police refused to release a copy of the 911 tape or a transcript of the call. Police also said there was a report that a person on board saw a weapon, but no explosives and no weapons were found. It was not clear if the same person who claimed to see a weapon was the 911 caller.
The passengers remained on the bus for about two hours after the 911 call — apparently because they did not know what to do amid the massive police presence. At the time, the police spokesman said he wasn’t sure why the people weren’t moving from the bus.
Authorities finally called them out — one by one — with minutes separating them. Each was treated like a suspect, Ferland said, because authorities did not know at the time if the threat was real.
One of the passengers, John Smolens, 68, of Lewiston, Maine, was charged with resisting arrest and was released on bail after pleading not guilty Friday.
Asked afterward if he had heard any phone conversation about a bomb, Smolens said no, but added, “There was some strange talk.”
The other passenger who was arrested, Calvin Segar, 29, of New York City, was ordered held on $10,000 bail for allegedly giving a false name to police after the passengers were evacuated. Segar, who has a record for drug possession, admitted to the judge that he gave the wrong name when he saw the massive law enforcement response.
“I was nervous and I lied,” he said.
All access to streets and buildings was restored early Friday.
Ferland emphasized that the case was not terrorism-related but said the response was appropriate, especially in light of the recent failed car bombing in Times Square.
“We have a bus that’s en route to New York City. We have an incident that occurred in New York City not too long ago. I think it was an appropriate, measured response,” he said at a news conference.
The Page restaurant, a few hundred feet from the bus, was among the businesses shut down. Owner Ted Mountzuris said some people told him they thought the police presence was overdone, but that many others disagreed, including some nearby hotel guests who were evacuated.
“Life comes first; business comes second,” he said. “I think you’ve got to look at it in reverse. The what-if.”
Associated Press writers Norma Love and Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., and John Curran in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.