An American Evacuation


Aspen Evacuees: Send Caviar and Furs

It was 3:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve when the call came into the  Loro Piana  store in downtown Aspen. The  stylish, dark-haired  saleswoman was in the middle of ringing up a pair of red cashmere socks.  Several  people were milling about the boutique, considering necessities  like a pair of $475 quilted cashmere slippers and a $70,000 chinchilla blanket. The saleswoman was told that a bomb with a note had been delivered to a Wells Fargo two blocks away.  Establishments around town were said to be receiving similar packages.  The 16-block downtown area , a winter wonderland  lit with bluish LED Christmas lights for the holidays, was being evacuated to a field at the edge of town. It was 20 degrees outside, getting dark, and more snow was on its way. The saleswoman looked devastated, the corners of her carefully drawn lip pencil sloping downward.  A bomb was one thing. But this was New Year’s Eve — Aspen’s biggest sales day of the year.  The saleswoman reluctantly shooed the shoppers outside.

Sirens wailed, shoppers in furs and cowboy boots clomped past Gucci and Bulgari toward the edges of town.  Emptying bars and restaurants with $500 covers were decked with balloons and streamers for New Year’s Eve.  Campo De Fiori, a trendy Italian restaurant, was expecting 200 guests. Aspen was counting on its biggest night.

“Ah, this is an American evacuation,” a passing European sniffed as the Loro Piano door clicked shut. With the demise of the dollar, Russians and other foreigners have flocked to  Aspen.

The police were closing down stores, but some visitors were determined to make their hair appointments, sneaking through back doors in alleys. A few blocks away the plush lobby of the Hotel Jerome swarmed with dogs in sweaters and après-ski  drinkers buzzing about bombs. Vectra Bank had received one. There were others. Speculation was fierce.  Biological? A coordinated attack like 911? At the concierge counter, a slim, pretty blonde woman in ski gear demanded sugar cookies.  “If I’m going to get blown up I’m going to have them,” she said. The concierge left for the kitchen to get her cookies.

Upstairs , many guests refused to leave their rooms.  An alarm shrieked. “For precautionary reasons the fire department has asked us to evacuate the building,” a voice sounded.  “Please proceed to the lobby. You will be led out by the Hotel Jerome staff.  This is a routine evacuation.”  The fire escape led down to the empty kitchen, where food still sautéed in large pans on the stove, abandoned like snowboards on nearby hills.

In the lobby the guests pushed toward the door carrying jewels and  tote-bag dogs.  A family of four fled the hotel in their bathrobes, hair drenched.  Outside, it wasn’t clear who was in charge . The well-heeled mob shuffled along. At the corner of Main and S. Monarch Street a hundred hotel guests and staff gathered.  Down the block the nation’s largest living Christmas tree at the Sardy House glowed with 10,000 lights that hedge fund CEO John Devaney had spent $250,000 to keep lit.  “I don’t think it was the idea to have us all exposed like a target on Main Street,” one woman shouted.  An unidentified man led them down the icy block to the stark Rio Grande building near the Pitken County jail.

The FBI arrived. The Grand Junction Bomb Squad was in transit. On the scene were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, the Red Cross and others.  The 16-block area was quickly cordoned off with yellow tape.

“It’s a credible threat,” said a man with an old dog, who greeted the evacuees. “They found a device. The packages had wires sticking out.” He said that he happened to be at the Rio Grande building to run a New Year’s Eve meeting for alcohol abusers. Now he was just helping out, he said.

The 141 hotel guests filed in and politely sat in aluminum chairs.  Someone asked about New Year’s eve cocktails.

It wasn’t long before everyone wanted back in the hotel. Caviar was surely going bad and the popped champagne would lose its fizz.  Employees feared they would give up what they came to Aspen for: the winter Gold Rush, a night to earn a thousand dollars or more in tips. At least three waiters at the Jerome had come from Transylvania.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to pay my rent,” one waiter said.

The bomb shelter was jammed with guests layered in cashmere, sparkles, and full-length furs. Children and dogs sprawled on the wood floor or sat on laps. Adults talked on cell phones. For those not caught in the shower when the alarm sounded, the makeup was impeccable, ready for the New Year’s parties.  But no one had brought provisions for a long stay. The hotel staff made rounds with chocolate cookies the size of quarters and checked the guests off a list.

“How do we know this place is safe?” someone asked. Clearly the miniature terrier with a bow was not a bomb-sniffer. The windows were almost floor to ceiling to take advantage of the mountain view.

Hours passed, people fidgeted and complained. Pizzas were promised. A  woman employed by Pitkin County stepped up to the front of the room.  She had a bus outside ready to take 14 people at a time out to Aspen High School. The Red Cross had set up beds for the night.

Groans.

“Don’t do that,” she said. “There are bombs out there!”

No one moved.

“The Red Cross is turning this into a Katrina,” someone said.

Reports were conflicting.  Responses were mixed: Hoax; get to the high school; stay-where you are.  Another official said  they feared that the historic Hotel Jerome, built in 1889, was a  target.

Pitkin County’s western Sheriff Bob Braudis, uncommonly tall with a sweep of graying hair, made an appearance. Sheriff Bob, set apart by his utilitarian floor-length coat, had been close friends and drinking buddies with Hunter S. Thompson. Their favorite watering hole was the Jerome bar. The sheriff’s pants sagged over his boots that were  untied. His demeanor was calm, especially so for a man who spends most of his time dealing with smaller crimes — stolen skis, commandeered snow mobiles, and skiers under the influence, and probably hadn’t seen such excitement since Ted Bundy escaped from the 2nd story window of the Pitkin County Courthouse in 1977.  He spoke in slow, hushed tones. He offered “no promises,” but suggested that any minute now the bomb squad was going to detonate one of the packages with “pressurized water.” If it was nothing, everyone could leave. He said he suspected it was nothing

At 8 p.m. waiters and cooks were allowed to leave first. Everyone cheered, hoping that dinner was still a possibility.  The firework show, famously spectacular, was cancelled. A different type of explosion was heard.

In the end,  only six out of the possibly thousands of people sent packing out of Aspen spent the night on the Red Cross’s cots. Ten Red Cross employees were on site to assist. Many visitors were not allowed back into their hotel until 4 a.m.  A black sled with a number of suspicious packages had been found behind the Gap. The Christmas presents were 5-gallon gasoline bombs with mouse traps set and cell phone actuators.  When the bomb squad detonated one outside Vectra Bank, it exploded into a fireball.

The suspect, James Blanning Jr. ,72, was found well-armed and dead in his jeep with a self-inflicted gun-shot wound to the chin.  The locals spoke of him as “generous,” a partier”,  “always very, very handsome. A ladies man.” He’d been convicted as  a  swindler and had served prison time. He’d grown up in the Hotel Jerome, hanging out with miners and developing his interest in explosives. No one doubted his ability to blow things up.

In a hate list he identified Sheriff Braudis, who recognized his signature, having had scrapes with him. Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland was also named a target. Earlier, he had been shuttled to a safe-house. In the notes, Blanning’s motives were revealed. He was angry that he had not profited from Aspen’s rise from struggling mining town to posh ski resort , from a place of hardy work boots to one of fur-lined Ferragamos.  Blanning also had trouble with the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East and called his efforts a suicide mission, demanding  $60,000 or promising  “mass death” and “a horrible price in blood.”

Hours later more details were learned. The bombs were all detonated. Aspen remained dark on New Year’s Eve. But on January 1st, people were out in their party hats and winter finery . The fireworks were shot off, boutiques reopened,  and airbrushed T-shirts  with  “I got bombed in Aspen”–a glitzy red bomb in a martini glass– went on sale.  Aspen was getting on its feet again.