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    Security at TIA alarmed by fake bombs -- its own

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
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    published January 15, 2003

    TAMPA -- The ordinary-looking briefcase set off alarms when it went through an explosives detection machine at Tampa International Airport. It appeared to be packed with bombs.

    "We looked at (X-ray) pictures of what was in the bag. It looked like pretty dangerous stuff," said Louis Miller, the airport's executive director.

    The ticketing level of the main terminal was evacuated for an hour Tuesday night as Tampa's bomb squad was called out.

    The briefcase turned out to be a "test bag" -- a harmless prop that the Transportation Security Administration uses to make sure its employees and equipment are screening bags properly.

    "Unfortunately, none of the people working in the area knew it was a test bag," Miller said. "They all thought it was real."

    This was not a planned test. It was not immediately clear how the mistake happened. How did the bag get into an explosives detection machine? Why was no one from the TSA aware that a test bag was present?

    "For now, they cannot answer those questions," Miller said.

    Airline passengers and airport officials were not amused. Miller called the security director of the TSA, the federal agency that screens baggage at all U.S. airports. TSA officials have pledged to investigate the incident.

    The bag was discovered about 7:20 p.m. in an explosives detection machine in front of the Southwest Airlines ticket counter on the terminal's second floor. Federal workers feed luggage into the huge, 900-pound machines by the ticket counters.

    About 7:45 p.m., TIA evacuated the terminal's second floor. Airline passengers went outside or to other areas of the terminal.

    The airport was not very busy at the time, and only two flights were delayed -- a Southwest Airlines flight and a British Airways flight.

    Several Southwest Airlines employees said the ticketing level was already a virtual ghost town when the call came to evacuate.

    "There was nobody in line," said ticket agent Nancy Cerbin. "We didn't have any contact with anybody. We just walked out."

    Chuck Steiner was working one level above at the gates. He said the few fliers he saw didn't seem worried.

    "They were fine," Steiner said. "They took it well. It wasn't busy at all. This place is dead on Tuesday and Wednesday."

    This was the second false alarm at TIA in recent weeks. On Dec. 24, the airport was evacuated when an explosives detection machine detected something in a piece of checked luggage. Authorities found nothing suspicious in that bag.

    -- Times staff writer Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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