A Tomlinson Middle School student's forgotten art project shut down one of the nation's busiest commuter railroads and paralyzed downtown for nearly three hours Friday morning.
And the whole thing could have been avoided if a local member of the Connecticut Commuter Action Group said something when he saw the box on the Unquowa Road bridge Wednesday night.
"I feel stupid,'' Mitchell Fuchs admitted Friday. "I even remember thinking `I hope my hand doesn't blow off' when I reached into the box. But then I saw it was empty and figured someone just left it there.''
Town employees sweeping the street found the box -- with painted cartoonish eyes and an antenna resembling the character Bender from the TV show "Futurama," plus a clock face -- on the sidewalk of the span over the Metro-North Railroad tracks shortly after 5:30 a.m. Friday. It was on the eastern side of the bridge, opposite from the stairways leading to the downtown train station's passenger platforms.
The "suspicious" box was reported by the Department of Public Works employees to local police, who called in MTA officers with a bomb-sniffing dog and the State Police bomb squad, which took more than an hour to arrive on the scene. A State Police helicopter hovered over the Post Road near the rail depot.
Metro-North and Amtrak service was halted in both directions from New Haven to Stamford. Regular service continued into New York City from Stamford.
Metro-North serves 281,000 riders a day in New York and Connecticut and is the nation's second busiest commuter railroad.
The box turned out to be left behind by a seventh-grader from nearby Tomlinson Middle School, Deputy Chief Chris Lyddy said. "The child inadvertently left the item in the vicinity of the bridge with the intent of returning to retrieve (it),'' Lyddy said. "There was no malicious intent.''
The bomb squad came from the Hartford area, State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said. There are several bomb units, but they are not assigned to specific barracks, he said. Troop G in Bridgeport is less than five miles from the scene.
"It would be foolish to rush in to any bomb call,'' Vance said. "The first thing is to clear the area and then there is a very definite procedure that must be followed. The men and women in those units could be killed.''
Although some criticized the bomb squad's response time, many commuters felt it was Metro-North's failure to communicate about the problem that was a significant concern.
Metro-North officials stopped all trains at 6:13 a.m., when advised by Fairfield police. But the first alert to passengers came at 6:56 a.m. -- nearly 45 minutes later -- warning of long delays because of "police activity.''
While the box was X-rayed, police closed several downtown streets off the busy Post Road. The train station parking lot also blocked off, causing some New York-bound trains to run as late as three hours.
"We've been told nothing,'' said James Madden of Fairfield as he waited in front of the Chase Bank office on the Post Road. "I'm going to stick it out for awhile, as long as there is a chance that a train will come.''
Once service was restored at 8:30 a.m., it was like pulling a cork from a bottle, with trains come through the downtown Fairfield station within minutes of each other until the backlog was cleared. Trains were back on schedule shortly after 10 a.m.
While Metro-North didn't have anything to do with the emergency response to the suspicious box, some commuters still blamed the railroad.
"I don't defend Metro-North any more," Joe Clyne, a Fairfield commuter for 16 years, said as he sat on the steps of Tomlinson Middle School overlooking the chaotic scene on the Unquowa Road bridge. "I used to say that Metro-North was better than the Long Island Railroad -- not anymore.
"Commuters have been faced with some kind of a delay every week caused by all kinds of issues -- weather, power outages, a defective bridge, and now a suspicious package,'' he said.
"Commuting isn't cheap -- and they never give us a rebate or refund," he added. "We're not getting the service for the money we spend."
Clyne intended to wait out the delay, but was considering asking his son to drive him to Stamford where the trains were still running Friday morning. "I do need to get to work today," he said.
Another Fairfield commuter, Scott Adams, said that he was resigned to waiting for the train Friday morning, no matter how long it took. But he certainly was not happy with Metro-North service.
"We're really long-suffering here," he said. "It's horrible. It's worse than ever."
Some commuters with destinations between New Haven and New York have even more problems than New York-bound commuters, according to Katy O'Reilly, who was waiting at the Southport station for a train to her job in Greenwich.
She and other commuters with "intermediate stops" are often forced to get off the train in Stamford whenever the trains are late running into New York, she said. "It's miserable. All they worry about is their on-time status for New York. We get the shaft quite often in addition to all the problems everyone else has," she said.
Despite all the problems, some commuters say they still would rather take a risk with Metro-North than drive to work.
"The traffic is terrible. I'd rather be an hour late to work than sit in traffic," O'Reilly said.
Fuchs, a Fairfield resident who works as a property manager in New York City, said he realized Friday morning "as soon as the report came out, that the suspicious package was the same box'' that he saw Wednesday night.
But he still didn't say anything. "What difference would it have made then?'' Fuchs asked. "Something could have been put inside the box in the meantime. They had to check it out.''
James Cameron, who heads the commuter action group, said he is disappointed in Fuchs. "Shame on Mitch for just leaving it there. It looked pretty sinister and if I was a bad guy I'd make it look somewhat comical like that.''