BWI bomb scare caused by vehicle driver left at curb Police close roads to airport after dog detects explosive

But no device found in car

Passengers frustrated by traffic jams and delayed flights

June 21, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

Major portions of Baltimore-Washington International Airport were closed yesterday morning when an unattended car parked in front of the terminal caused a bomb scare that delayed flights, created widespread confusion and tied up traffic for several hours.

Hundreds of passengers were cleared from piers A and B in the terminal just before 7 a.m. after a state police dog alerted officers four times to the scent of explosives in the trunk of a gold-colored Ford, police said. A subsequent check by a bomb robot found packages but no explosives in the car.

The car's driver, Leslie Hoffman of Pennsylvania, who was delivering packages for a Pennsylvania company, was questioned by officials from the state fire marshal's office and FBI agents. He was charged with leaving his vehicle unattended and later released.

Traffic backed up on all roads leading to the airport. By 9: 30 a.m., police reopened Interstate 195 and Route 170, the two main roads into the airport, as well as roads leading to the upper and lower decks of the airport in front of the terminal.

The road closures left some frustrated passengers waiting in satellite parking lots for shuttle buses that didn't arrive. Some grabbed their bags and took a long walk up congested Elm Road to the terminal. Others lucky enough to catch a shuttle bus after the roads were reopened sat in traffic that inched its way to the terminal.

"Luckily, I got up at 4 o'clock in the morning so that I could be early for my flight," said Laura Cockey of Westminster, whose business flight to Seattle on United Airlines was supposed to leave at 8: 45 a.m. An hour later, she was still waiting to check in.

Inside the airport, check-in lines crammed with weary travelers snaked across the terminal at each airline from United Airlines to Southwest Airlines. Those picking up family and friends arrived to discover that flight arrival and departure times and gates had been changed for several airlines, including USAirways, Southwest, Delta and United. Those airlines use piers A and B.

Airport officials said 19 flights were delayed because of the incident.

Brenda Buck, whose family drove from Dunkirk in Calvert County to pick up a niece and nephew traveling from Houston, said: "Oh my Lord, I had no idea why we hit so much traffic coming here. That might explain why I can't find their flight."

The incident began about 6: 30 a.m., when Maryland Transportation Authority Police discovered the car parked on the upper deck of Pier A, where the terminal begins. The 1980s-model Ford LTD was ticketed, and when the driver could not be found, a state police canine unit was called to the scene by 6: 50 a.m.

Operation a 'success'

Shortly before 7 a.m., police prohibited passengers and workers from being within 1,500 feet of the car. Traffic to the airport was halted temporarily, police said. In the next two hours, the state fire marshal's bomb squad was called and a remote robot was used to examine the trunk's contents.

"The canine alerted on the automobile four times, indicating that there were explosives in the trunk," said W. Faron Taylor, a deputy state fire marshal. "For an operation to not only assemble but terminate within 2 1/2 hours [it] was a complete success."

Hoffman, who returned to the car in the midst of the chaos, told police he had just started working for Capital Delivery Services this month and had no knowledge of explosives ever being in the car, which had once been used as a taxicab. Reached in Harrisburg, Pa., the delivery company officials declined to comment.

Police said Hoffman was fined $50 for the traffic violations.

Airport officials said passengers are warned by airport security and signs that they are not permitted to leave their vehicles in front of the terminal. An announcement is broadcast every five or 10 minutes warning that unattended vehicles will be ticketed and immediately towed.

"The big concern we have when something like this happens is that it disrupts people's travel," said BWI Administrator Theodore E. Mathison. "We're set up to handle a variety of circumstances, but when it happens, it's hard because many flights are booked full. We'll review our procedures, but I'm not sure there's much else we can do. We just ask people not to leave their cars in front of the airport."

The last time this happened was Nov. 17, 1996, when someone left a rental car on the upper deck in front of the international terminal, airport officials said.

Even though the hubbub was over before noon yesterday, the airport was still crowded as airline staff worked to book delayed passengers on other flights.

'It will all work out'

Despite the bad luck, some, such as Diane Foster of Wilmington, Del., maintained a good attitude.

"It will all work out," said Foster, whose family of six missed its 8: 35 a.m. flight to Los Angeles for a California vacation. The family was told the best thing to do was drive to Philadelphia for a 5: 30 p.m. flight to the West Coast -- first class at the airline's expense.

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