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Man Released Following Bomb Scare at Burbank Airport

Security: The San Jose-bound passenger's computer bag tested positive for residue of a chemical commonly used in explosives. Hundreds of passengers were delayed.

April 22, 2001|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — Authorities released a man late Friday who had set off security devices at Burbank Airport earlier in the day, causing a six-hour disruption that included the closing of one terminal, an FBI investigator said Saturday.

Airport security officers detained the man, a Southwest airlines passenger bound for San Jose whose name was not released, after screening his computer with an X-ray machine. Authorities later determined that the computer bag contained residue of a chemical commonly used to make explosives, said FBI Special Agent Matthew McLaughlin.

"The man was interviewed at length and there may be a plausible explanation of why the residue was on the bag," said McLaughlin, who declined to describe either the residue or the explanation. Authorities ruled out initial suspicions that titanium in the laptop had triggered the false reading.

Airport officials said the man was "very drunk," which may have complicated the investigation. He was still carrying a bottle of vodka as he attempted to pass through the security checkpoint, said Susan Manukyan, Southwest's assistant security manager.

"He was not in a normal state to participate in questioning," agreed Victor Gill, the spokesman for Burbank Airport, adding that the man may also have been taking medication. The vodka bottle, along with a water bottle, had to be separately investigated, Gill said.

The incident delayed at least 30 flights and hundreds of passengers as Los Angeles County sheriff's bomb squad technicians and FBI agents responded. The nine-gate terminal was closed and Southwest was forced to cancel six flights due to federal regulations limiting the number of hours flight crews can work, Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin said.

Despite the inconveniences--one weary traveler missed her own wedding scheduled for late Friday in Las Vegas--officials said the lengthy investigation was typical for bomb scares. The county bomb squad, based in Whittier and hampered by rush-hour traffic on the rainy Friday evening, did not reach the airport until about two hours after the man was detained, Sheriff's Deputy David Cervantes said.

Cervantes said the six-hour timeline was nothing unusual. "When it comes to [bomb scares], there is no rush just because it's going to hinder some people's travel time. It's better to be cautious," he said.

On Saturday morning, the man whose laptop caused such a stir was expected back at the airport to catch his flight, but he did not show up.

"We were waiting for him, but--I don't know--maybe he was scared to try again," said Cristela Torres, a Southwest security supervisor.

Carl Sansbury, a police sergeant who handles airport security at LAX, said that household items such as garden fertilizer or gasoline can trigger false alarms indicating chemical residue. But he agreed that it's better to be safe than sorry.

"You can't hurry this process. If it comes to [having] to shut the airport down, I will," he said. "I mean, would you want to be responsible for letting something through that blows up?"

*

Times staff writers Erika Hayasaki, Carol Chambers and Michael Krikorian contributed to this report.

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