For Customs Service inspector Diana M. Dean, the day seemed routine. Then the last car rolled off the ferry that crosses from Victoria, British Columbia, to Port Angeles, Wash.

She had started a conversation with the car's driver--"I talked to him just like I would any other passenger crossing the border"--but something wasn't quite right. So she asked the man to turn off the engine and step out.

"Everything happened real fast after that," Dean said yesterday.

Within minutes, the driver bolted, setting off a chase that ended about six blocks from the border station when U.S. Customs inspectors wrestled him to the ground in the middle of an intersection.

The suspect, arrested last Tuesday, has been identified as Ahmed Ressam, 32. The car was carrying 100 pounds of bomb-making supplies, including nitroglycerin and other explosives. Authorities are trying to determine whether Ressam, an Algerian, has ties to a theft ring that provided money to terrorist groups or other links to terrorist networks.

Dean and two of her colleagues described the suspect's capture yesterday after an awards ceremony in their honor at the Ronald Reagan Building. Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly presented medals for "exceptional service" to Dean, senior inspector Mark Johnson and inspector Carmon D. Clem. A fourth Customs inspector who helped in the arrest, Mike Chapman, was not able to attend the ceremony.

Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, one of three Treasury officials attending the ceremony, praised the Customs inspectors for their "bravery and heroism." In seizing the ingredients needed to make a powerful bomb, Summers said, the inspectors helped the nation avoid "what could have been a season of tragedy for many."

Officials credited Dean, a 19-year Customs veteran, for relying on her instincts and training when she decided to ask the suspect to step out of his car for further questioning. Dean declined to publicly specify exactly what drew her attention because of an ongoing investigation by federal agents.

The case, though, underscored some of the problems facing the Customs Service.

Only four full-time inspectors and as many as eight part-time inspectors work at Port Angeles, about 60 miles northwest of Seattle. On a slow day, they handle about 100 cars disembarking the ferry from Victoria. In a typical year, they process 350,000 people and 80,000 cars and trucks.

Across the nation, Customs employs about 7,000 inspectors at 301 ports of entry to handle about 460 million travelers each year. The inspectors are stretched thin, often working extra hours or shifts, and many do not have access to e-mail or centralized computer systems.

Yesterday, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Customs employees, called on Congress to make a "wise investment" and provide additional funds to boost staffing at the nation's border crossings.

The Customs commissioner said because of the Port Angeles seizure, he has deployed an additional 300 employees to work at border crossings, particularly at relatively remote locations.

Dean, who is married to a retired Customs agent and has two daughters, called the capture and seizure of explosives an "absolutely eye-opening" experience.

With the driver out of the car, she said, Clem removed the trunk floor board and discovered suspicious packages, while Johnson patted down the suspect for weapons and felt something in a jacket pocket. The suspect slipped out of his jacket and started running. "We hot-footed after him," Johnson said.

CAPTION: Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, left, praises inspectors Carmon D. Clem, Diana M. Dean and Mark Johnson for "heroism."