Quick reaction at BWI Airport fumes: Officials do a good job of handling a potentially chaotic evacuation.

March 08, 1997

AIRPORT OFFICIALS, airline personnel, police and emergency crews calmly and effectively handled Thursday evening's evacuation of a portion of Baltimore-Washington International Airport after several passengers were overcome by noxious fumes.

With more than 1,500 passengers missing dozens of domestic and several international flights, the ingredients for a chaotic and dangerous situation at BWI were present. It never developed.

As soon as passengers waiting at Gate D-24 experienced problems due to the fumes around 6 p.m. -- itchy and watery eyes, wheezing and coughing -- Maryland Transportation Police cleared the pier in a matter of minutes.

The closing of Pier D, which has 47 of BWI's 65 gates, shut down most of US Airway's operations during a peak travel period. About 30 minutes later, a passenger in Pier E complained of fumes. That area of the airport, which handles international flights, was closed as well.

Unlike an incident months ago in which the investigation of a suspicious, abandoned rental car caused a massive traffic snarl at the terminal, cars were able to move smoothly during the evacuation. Police officers did exceptional work in preventing back-ups and bringing emergency vehicles to the terminal.

As police herded people into the main terminal, loudspeakers were used to communicate what was happening. Unfortunately, this did not continue through the evening. Just as people realized that arriving flights were being diverted and departing flights were canceled, the announcements over the loudspeakers reverted to the normal, recorded warnings not to leave baggage unattended.

When Theodore E. Mathison, executive director of the state aviation authority, tried informing the crowd, the recordings repeatedly drowned him out. In a future emergency, officials should either shut down the loudspeakers or use them for emergency communications. That hitch aside, airport officials handled a potentially hazardous disruption in operations with professional aplomb.

Pub Date: 3/08/97

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