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Bomb Scare at Burbank Airport Snags Travelers

Transit: Authorities hold a man and seize his laptop computer at an X-ray checkpoint. Gates close for hours, delaying flights and stranding hundreds of passengers.

April 21, 2001|ANNETTE KONDO and RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BURBANK — At least 30 flights and several hundred passengers at Burbank Airport were delayed Friday for more than five hours after authorities said they detained a man and inspected his laptop computer, which they suspected may have been a bomb.

Airport security became suspicious that a laptop they inspected was "possibly explosive" at about 4:30 p.m. as it was being screened at the checkpoint leading to Concourse A, which handles flights for Southwest and America West airlines, airport spokesman Victor Gill said.

The man carrying the computer, whose name was not released, had not been charged with any offense late Friday, Gill said.

"We don't know what flight that person was destined for," Gill said. "We don't know if he had a plane ticket or if he had a flight he was going to. We don't know if it was a real computer . . . They are treating it like it has some risk."

FBI Special Agent Matthew McLaughlin said the authorities' concern "was relative to the X-ray process involving the computer. It may have been difficult to get the [photo] resolution they wanted, which forced security to go to other inspection means."

Airport security consequently "did a swab" of the computer and its bag, which "came up positive for a chemical residue of concern," although the titanium in the laptop might have triggered a false reading, officials said. Later, officials said no explosives were found.

Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators and bomb squad technicians responded, as did FBI special agents.

"There may be a plausible explanation for that residue," McLaughlin said. "That is under investigation."

The nine-gate concourse was closed shortly after the man was detained.

People were moved to a nearby baggage claim area, and a restaurant nearby was also evacuated. A fire door was also lowered between the main terminal building and the checkpoint as a precautionary measure.

As the evening wore on, hundreds clogged the airport's hallways. Some spontaneously plopped themselves in the middle of foot traffic; others found themselves jammed into corners with no way out. Ticket-takers blinked back tears as angry travelers demanded answers they didn't have. Others were stranded in the parking lots after the shuttle service was shut down.

"There is no way of getting in there," shuttle driver Ed Flinsky shouted at a group of passengers waiting along the curb.

Sheriff's Bomb Squad investigators were still examining the computer at 9:40 p.m.

Southwest and America West traffic was diverted to Terminal B, which handles United and Alaska airlines flights. At around 7 p.m., three of the gates at Terminal A farthest from the checkpoint were opened, with passengers transported to Concourse B in shuttles, Gill said.

One of America West's five remaining flights for the evening suffered a 15-minute delay, spokesman Paul Barton said. Another flight from Phoenix had to be diverted to LAX after waiting above Burbank in a holding pattern. The other three flights were on time, he said.

Southwest, however, had bigger problems, with 14 departures and 16 arrivals affected by the terminal closure. Some passengers waited as long as 4 1/2 hours, spokeswoman Beth Harbin said, with the average flight delay being 2 1/2 hours.

At around 7 p.m., three of the gates at Terminal A were reopened for Southwest planes, Harbin said.

Shortly before 10:30 p.m., a Southwest employee announced that all gates in Terminal A would be opening immediately and the crowd broke into loud cheers and applause.

Though Harbin said she couldn't estimate the number of passengers affected, she noted that with Friday being a popular travel day, all of the flights were nearly full.

"We have a lot of passengers that want to get home, and we want to get them home," Harbin said amid the chaos.

Gill said a number of flights scheduled to fly into Burbank were standing by at their originating airports as sheriff's deputies examined the computer. By around 9:40 p.m., hundreds of passengers were waiting in Burbank's main terminal building to see whether their flights would be canceled, Gill said.

Marty Avila, 29, of Alhambra, was waiting for an 8 p.m. Southwest flight to Las Vegas, where she planned to get married Friday night. She fumed as the delay dragged into its second hour.

"My wedding day is all ruined," she said while standing outside Terminal A. "This is all chaos, a madhouse. They can't even tell us anything, and that's what makes it worse. . . People are stepping over each other. They're very grouchy, they're very loud."

Megee O'Neall, 44, of Reseda, was camped on the terminal floor with her 14-year-old son and his best friend. Their Southwest flight to San Jose had been delayed more than three hours. "It's reassuring in some ways," she said, referring to the painstaking examination of the laptop.

Her son, Gabe Yorke, wasn't so sure. "I hate it," he said, while playing tick-tack-toe with his buddy Easton Gilmore, also 14.

"It's kind of scary," said Easton, "but I'm calm because they're taking these precautions."

*

Staff writers Margaret Talev, Louis Sahagun and Roberto Manzano contributed to this story.

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