Each morning, workers arriving at the Passaic Valley Water Commission plant drive between 10-foot-high gates, past a uniformed guard and into the gaze of a surveillance camera.
Security inside the water treatment complex in Totowa, where a missing chemist was found drowned earlier this month, is a different story. All employees have access to all buildings, with no doors requiring pass cards and no indoor video capturing their movements, workers and borough officials said.
"There are no secure doors. There's no card access. Even if you come in from the outside you can go anywhere," said Allen Del Vecchio, Totowa's fire marshal and emergency management coordinator and one of the first to respond to the missing persons call. "We walked that entire site without any problem at all."
That freedom of movement and lack of surveillance have complicated the work of detectives seeking to explain how senior chemist Geetha Angara wound up dead in an underground water tank - apparently at the hands of one of her co-workers.
The question of why continued this week to bedevil Angara's relatives and friends, including a lab technician who was among the last to speak with the Holmdel woman and saw no signs that she was in trouble.
On the morning of Feb. 8, Harshad Naik found Angara in a staff break room, chatting with another colleague about favorite movie actors. "She was just the same cheerful Geetha I always knew," Naik said.
Authorities say the mother of three was last seen after 10 a.m. that day. A plant manager and Angara's husband, Jaya, called police late that night, sparking a search that ended with the discovery of her body the following evening.
Authorities believe a co-worker forced Angara through an opening that leads to the 35-foot-deep clearwell tank. About 60 of the plant's 85 workers have been interviewed, but detectives remain confounded by the crime.
"We have no apparent motive. We have no witnesses. Physical evidence is sparse to non-existent. Where do you go?" Passaic County Prosecutor James F. Avigliano said.
Commission officials declined to say if security changes are planned for the site. A spokesman said PVWC, which directly supplies water for 17 North Jersey communities, has invested $70 million in recent years "to ensure the safety and security of our water supply."
Naik said few workers would have any reason to walk through the purification building where Angara was last seen. Authorities say she was on her way to check water quality monitors that line a corridor above the tank where her body was found.
Normally, a 50-pound, aluminum plate covers the tank opening. The plate is kept in place with about a dozen screws, Del Vecchio said. But he and several officers who went to search for Angara found the screws either broken off or missing, he said.
"There's no way that thing was screwed down," Del Vecchio said.
Among conflicting points in the investigation is whether the panel was found in place or dislodged when workers first began searching for Angara.
None of the workers interviewed this week by The Record said they had ever come across an uncovered tank opening.
Family members declined to address the issue of internal security at the plant, but they have questioned why Angara's disappearance went unnoticed for more than 10 hours.
Their attorney, Greg Shaffer, said the family "just wants to make sure that if there are any deficiencies in the security that they be corrected."