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2 Incidents Force LAX to Evacuate 4 Terminals

About 10,000 passengers are ordered out and 250 flights delayed. Officials see no sign of terrorism.

September 05, 2004|Jennifer Oldham, Steve Hymon and Cara Mia Dimassa | Times Staff Writers

Two unrelated security incidents within one hour Saturday morning at Los Angeles International Airport triggered the evacuation of four passenger terminals, closed roadways around the airport and caused hours of frustration and delays for thousands of holiday travelers.

Just before 7:30 a.m., a man bypassed a screening checkpoint in Terminal 8. Forty-four minutes later a small flashlight exploded in the Tom Bradley International Terminal during a routine baggage inspection, slightly injuring eight employees.

Local and federal officials quickly determined that the incidents were not terrorist acts. "There is no evidence that this was a criminal act or related to terrorism in any way," said John Miller, the LAPD's counterterrorism chief.

But the dual occurrences prompted a swift and sweeping law enforcement mobilization that included about 200 airport police, the Los Angeles police and fire departments, the FBI and federal transportation security officers.

At the height of the evacuation an estimated 10,000 passengers were ordered out of the airport, part of a baggage-burdened stream that wended its way more than a mile down Century Boulevard, which became an impromptu pickup and drop-off point.

"Can you believe they are making an old lady like me walk all this way with her bags?" joked Brosley Rivera, 54, of Slidell, La., who had arrived at 8:30 a.m. from New Orleans. She waited half an hour inside the plane, only to be put on a shuttle bus and deposited on Century, where she faced a long walk to try to find her sister who was picking her up.

Will Greer dragged his luggage toward the airport, hoping to make a 12:45 p.m. flight to Hawaii for a weeklong vacation.

"We're trying to leave -- on a wing and a prayer," said Greer, 33, of Glendora, who called the airline and was told to try to get to LAX any way possible.

During the evacuations, planes continued to land but the number of takeoffs was greatly reduced since many passengers could not get to their planes. Even in the terminals that remained open, airlines delayed flights because people were stranded outside LAX.

By about 11:30 a.m., the closed airport terminals and roads had been reopened and throngs of travelers began their trek back to long lines at terminal doors, check-in counters and screening points.

At least 250 departing flights were delayed, some up to three hours. The delays rippled through the nation's air traffic system, with scores of people missing connections.

The events unfolded during the lightest period of a busy Labor Day holiday weekend that is expected to draw 785,000 passengers to the airport.

"The combination of the two incidents required the actions that occurred, the evacuation of the terminals, the closing of the airport so we could ascertain exactly what had occurred," said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton. LAX is considered the state's top terrorist target.

"The resulting inconvenience to thousands of people is unfortunate," he said. "But we have to first determine what happened."

The evacuation was the largest since March 2002, when officials shut down six terminals for several hours after security personnel discovered that a walk-through screening device had not been working for at least an hour, allowing dozens of passengers to pass through without being screened.

On Saturday, scores of perspiring travelers grumbled as they waited in long lines, but they were generally calm, accustomed to airport delays. Shawn and Pinky Clive, Los Angeles residents headed to India, waited an hour just to get into the airport. "It's frustrating, but if this is a genuine threat, it's understandable," Shawn Clive said. Many did not know what was happening, but simply followed evacuation orders.

The security breach in Terminal 8 occurred at 7:22 a.m. A man who police believe had just gotten off a plane and was in the lower-level baggage area suddenly sprinted back up a stairway and past a security guard.

"After some time of not being able to locate him we followed standard operating procedure and evacuated the terminals," said Larry Fetters, a security director for the Transportation Security Administration. Police were unable to find the man.

Fetters said the evacuation was necessary because the man could have been carrying a "contaminated item," a typical reference to a bomb or other weapon. The man's actions, he said, "had the appearance of a deplaning passenger who probably remembered his sunglasses were on the plane and he sprinted past the security guard."

The incident was the third security breach in as many weeks. The two others also prompted temporary evacuations. An incident at Terminal 4 on Aug. 16 delayed 27 departing flights after a passenger with a small knife was mistakenly allowed through a security checkpoint. A second, on Aug. 26, forced the closure of the lower level of Terminal 6 after officials found a suspicious object in a restroom.

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