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    Man, gun vanish at TIA

    About 3,000 people are evacuated, disrupting two dozen flights. Search turns up nothing but new questions about safety.

    By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 3, 2002
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    TAMPA -- Before dawn Tuesday, a tall man in a light-colored shirt dropped his carry-on bag on an X-ray conveyor at Airside A in Tampa International Airport.

    On the monitor, a screener saw a clear outline of what appeared to be a handgun in the bag.

    But before airport police could arrive, the passenger plunged his hand deep into the X-ray machine, grabbed his bag and slipped away. Without anyone noticing, he simply carried his bag to another of the six lines, where he cleared security without question and walked toward a gate.

    A subsequent scramble to find him forced the evacuation of as many as 3,000 passengers from Airside A for more than 90 minutes and caused 22 morning flights to be delayed and two to be canceled. The man was never found or identified.

    The incident again raised questions about the adequacy of post-Sept. 11 airport security -- and about whether any amount of scrutiny and screening can find all the weapons people carry, by accident or on purpose, onto airplanes.

    "It doesn't say much for airport security that the guy could get away," said John Rice, president of Calypso Tours in Temple Terrace, who was aboard a Northwest Airlines flight that had to be recalled after taxiing for takeoff. "There was massive confusion this morning. We need the traveling public to feel confidence about flying, and the kind of confusion we experienced just undermines confidence."

    But the Federal Aviation Administration defended the handling of the incident, noting the evacuation stopped the man from boarding a plane with a gun.

    "The system worked the way it was supposed to," said FAA spokesman Christopher White.

    This was not the first security breach at TIA, and it's the latest in a national string of problems that has emptied airports as far-flung as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood and Fort Myers. Half of TIA's Landside terminal was evacuated two weeks after September's terrorist attacks when a U.S. Customs agent saw something suspicious in a checked bag. And late in December, a Valrico man boarded a Delta Air Lines flight at TIA with a loaded handgun in his briefcase.

    Tuesday's trouble started about 5:20 a.m., when the X-ray image of the bag came up on the screener's monitor and showed what appeared to be a gun. The screener stopped the belt and called a supervisor. Yes, the supervisor agreed, it's a gun.

    The supervisor summoned airport police, but before they arrived the passenger grabbed his bag and disappeared.

    The federal Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport security screening, was notified. At 6:10 a.m., fearing that the man might have managed to get into the "sterile" gate area beyond security, officials ordered the evacuation of Airside A and all the aircraft parked there.

    When the airside reopened at 7:49 a.m., the 3,000 people who had been herded out had to be rescreened. At one point the line from the shuttle lobby stretched from Airside A across both banks of blue elevators to Airside F and around the corner almost down to Airside D, with passengers standing five and six abreast.

    Most took it all in stride.

    "It's better to overdo it than underdo it when they've got some crazy man running around," said Jim Moran, 75, who had come to the airport to see his daughter off.

    "I was nervous when I heard at first, but I'm not worried anymore," said Rhea Woods, 22, a college student flying to Nashville.

    White, the FAA spokesman, said the system worked as it should.

    "After all the passengers were sent back to the (Landside) terminal, the airside was swept, nothing was found, and it was declared sterile," White said. "The objective was to make sure that nobody got aboard an airplane with a weapon, and we knew that by rescreening everyone, we could prevent that. That's the point."

    On the other hand, the tall, white man -- the only description officials offered of the suspect -- did get through security and into the gate area.

    Airside A's six security arches and X-ray conveyors are covered by two video cameras concealed in what appear to be two goose-neck lamps atop the arrivals-and-departures board in front of the checkpoints. When investigators looked at the tapes later, they saw the suspect take his bag, move to another line and clear security.

    He was not seen in the confusion when the terminal was evacuated, nor was he seen when the passengers were screened a second time.

    The National Guard, which will be posted at security checkpoints until the end of the month, played no role in Tuesday morning's incident. The Guard personnel are stationed on the secure side of the checkpoints, and all the action took place on the entry side.

    The Guard personnel could not have arrested the man, even if his bag had been searched and a weapon found. They do not have that authority, which is why airport police were summoned.

    Airport operations returned to normal shortly before noon.

    -- Times Staff Writer Kathryn Wexler contributed to this report.

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