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Suspicious bag forces evacuation at airport

A U.S. Customs agent triggers TIA's blue side closure and backup after an explosives detector flags a passenger's bag.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 2001

A U.S. Customs agent triggers TIA's blue side closure and backup after an explosives detector flags a passenger's bag.

TAMPA -- As the line to the airport shuttles stretched before them, Marilyn and Howard Miller knew they were right to arrive two hours early to see their grandson off to Utah.

"The line was amazing," Marilyn Miller said, sweeping her arm across the expanse of Tampa International Airport's main terminal building on Tuesday. "I was glad we were so early. The woman behind us was worried because her flight was leaving in about 15 minutes, and it looked like she was in for an hour's wait just to get on the shuttle."

The backup had nothing to do with the holidays. It was prompted by a U.S. Customs agent, at TIA to handle a departing Cayman Airways flight, who spotted something highly suspicious in a piece of checked baggage and ordered the evacuation of half of the Landside Terminal Tuesday morning.

The evacuation -- which included the shuttle lobbies for two of the airport's three largest tenants, Southwest Airlines and US Airways -- began at 11:15 a.m. and ended about 12:30 p.m. It included the blue side of baggage claim on the ground level, the blue side of ticketing on the second level, and the blue side of the third level, where passengers shuttle to and from their flights.

The FBI briefly detained and questioned the bag's owner, who was not identified. The Tampa bomb squad determined that the contents of the bag were harmless. The bag was returned to the passenger, a man, and both were released.

The FBI released no information on what inside the bag triggered the alarm or the identity and travel plans of the bag's owner. It did not return phone calls from a reporter.

Asked why all three levels were emptied, Ed Cooley, director of operations for TIA, replied, "Proximity. Vertical blast. What they thought they might be dealing with was larger than a single stick of dynamite."

During the evacuation, passengers were moved to the red side of the building or out onto the sidewalks, airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said. Passenger traffic to and from nearly 80 flights was disrupted. Twenty-four flights experienced delays as long as 30 to 45 minutes, she said.

"That's one of the busiest times of the day at those two airsides," Geoghagan said.

However, Christopher White, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the incident caused no disruptions to the regional or national air traffic system.

The equipment that flagged the suspicious bag is a CTX-5000, an explosives detector about the size of a small car. It sits by the US Airways ticket counter on the second level of the terminal building, operated by Globe Security under contract from the airline.

It doesn't scan all checked bags, but it examines selected bags from all airlines. The CTX has been at TIA for three years, said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Four more are due to arrive next year.

"It's part of the FAA's mandate that every piece of checked baggage be screened while still with the owner," Miller said.

The CTX-5000 automatically screens bags for explosives using technology similar to medical CT scans. X-rays map objects inside a bag, looking at multiple angles to create cross-sectional images or "slices." The equipment analyzes the slices and identifies objects that might contain explosive materials. If anything is found, a computer sets off an alarm and displays the images for the operator to evaluate. The entire process takes only seconds.

It was a CTX alarm Tuesday that prompted the terminal evacuation, a process that involved about 1,000 people, according to airport officials.

"At first, they weren't sure what was happening," Cooley said. "We told them for safety reasons they had to move to the red side. They were cooperative."

Marilyn Miller of Ellenton said she was surprised at how quickly the lines at the shuttle lobby security checkpoint were dealt with.

"They called out people whose flights were leaving and took them first, and in about 15 minutes, the lines were gone," she said. "It was quite efficient."

Few passengers admitted to being shaken.

"If anything, it gives me more confidence," said Jack Collier, a student from New York City who was returning there after the Thanksgiving holiday. "Whatever the problem was, the system caught it. It worked the way it is supposed to work."

Natalie Laura, who was headed home to Delray Beach, dismissed the disruption.

"No big deal, not really," Laura said.

But after getting phone calls from both her boyfriend and her son checking on her well-being, Connie Wassermann of Palm Harbor, a sales representative headed to Baltimore, confessed to being a little jittery.

"It's scary," Wassermann said. "Scary. Scary. I fly about every week. It's all in the back of your mind all the time, but you don't let it stop you from your normal routine. I'm stopped, scanned, frisked. It's all part of flying now. I wore a shirt with the flag on it today so I wouldn't look like a terrorist."

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