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    Man, potential weapon remain a mystery at TIA

    A day after a gun scare rattled the airport, officials said they'll probably never know more than they do now.

    By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 4, 2002
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    TAMPA -- Aviation officials are no closer to identifying or finding the man whose suspicious carry-on bag triggered the evacuation of Airside A at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, and delayed or canceled flights for up to 3,000 passengers.

    Christopher White, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said Wednesday the agency probably never would know more about the man or the possible weapon he carried to a security checkpoint at 5:20 a.m.

    Something in the bag that looked like a handgun on the X-ray screen caught a screener's attention, but the man grabbed the bag and disappeared.

    "Again, the objective was to clear the terminal and re-screen everyone to make sure nobody got aboard an airplane with a weapon," White said. "Once that was done, that was pretty much the end of it. We might never know more than we know now."

    Ed Cooley, senior director of operations at TIA, said the man could not have gotten away on an airplane. None departed between the time of the security breach and the evacuation, Cooley said, and one Northwest flight bound for Memphis, which had pushed back from the gate and was taxiing for takeoff, was recalled and cleared.

    Investigators have security videotape showing the man entering the gate area, but they have not released his photograph. They say they are not looking for him because the object in his bag might not have been a gun, and even if it were, there is no way to prove that now.

    The man, identified only as tall, white and wearing a light-colored shirt, was an early morning passenger at Airside A, which houses Southwest, Continental, Northwest, America West and Gulfstream airlines. He put his carry-on bag on an X-ray conveyor belt but did not go through the metal-detecting arch.

    The screener saw something that resembled a handgun and stopped the belt. A supervisor also thought the object to be a gun. Airport police were called, but before they arrived, the man reached into the X-ray machine and grabbed his bag.

    Without anyone noticing, he slipped away and moved to another line, where he cleared security without question. Officials didn't realize he had done that until they reviewed a security videotape later.

    After the man's disappearance, the federal Transportation Security Agency ordered that the entire airside, along with all the aircraft there, be cleared and swept for suspects and weapons. Once that was done, all the passengers were screened again and allowed to go on their way. At least 22 flights were delayed, and two were canceled.

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