Suspicious bag, snakes ensnare BWI

Incident delays flights, disrupts airport 3 hours

May 24, 2000|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

It wasn't just the bag, which appeared to contain dynamite, that raised eyebrows at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday morning. Or its owner, who seemed unable to recall what he had packed inside it for his trip to Los Angeles.

There also was the small matter of two baby pythons concealed under the man's shirt.

Altogether, it made for a traveler's nightmare as investigators worked to identify the contents of the bag and question its owner. Fearing that the suitcase might contain a bomb, they evacuated Piers A and B at BWI and closed off roads feeding the airport. Twenty-one flights were canceled or delayed.

The bag's owner, a 33-year-old Baltimore man who was not identified, was released and was not charged after the suspicious object turned out to be a camera tripod.

"Obviously, the snakes were not something we were expecting to see," said Lori Vidil of the Maryland Transportation Authority. "But the snakes, of course, really had no bearing on the fact that there was a suspicious device."

The inci- dent began just before 6 a.m. as the man passed through a security scanner on his way to a United Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles. The soft-sided suitcase appeared to include a device with wires. Questioned about it, its owner "couldn't tell us what we were seeing on the screen," said Vidil.

The discovery that he was carrying two foot-long snakes under his shirt raised additional questions. "It did play a part in our questioning of the individual and in our assessment of him," she said.

Investigators took the man to the airport police station at the south end of BWI.

Meanwhile, investigators from the State Fire Marshal's office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrived. Traffic was blocked about 7 a.m. at Route 170 and Interstate 195 at Elm Road, backing up vehicles for about a mile, state highway officials said.

Inside the airport, a 4-foot-tall remote-controlled robot belonging to the state bomb squad rolled up to the bag, which was still at the scanner, picked it up and slowly removed it from the terminal and onto a remote, unused runway.

Just before 9 a.m., the robot aimed at the bag and fired a "disrupter," a projectile that tears the target apart while reducing the possibility of explosion. The bag contained the tripod, batteries, a battery charger and clothing.

During his two hours with police, the bag's owner accurately recalled the contents of the bag as he played with the two snakes.

"He said they were pets and they were in his shirt so he could keep them warm," Vidil said.

She said the transportation authority had no choice but to close roads.

"We were dealing with a potential explosive device and wanted to keep as many individuals away from a dangerous scene as possible," she said.

The roads were reopened shortly before 9 a.m. At that time, the man, with the snakes in a box, was released. Officials said they did not know whether he planned to board another flight. Vidil said she was not sure whether a passenger would be allowed to board a plane with snakes.

Jill and Roy Bloor of Mechanicsburg, Pa., said they thought staying at an airport hotel would make traveling with their two young children easier. But the chaos left them waiting at BWI for nearly five hours -- and that was after the hotel shuttle returned them to the hotel lobby when ramps to the airport were closed.

"It's going to be a long day," said Jill Bloor, whose husband was supervising their 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son on play equipment in a waiting area while they waited for a 3: 45 p.m. flight to replace their original 8: 50 a.m. flight.

For Shannon Frederick, 23, of Northern California the delays yesterday worked in her favor. She had been scheduled on a 9: 30 a.m. flight to Oakland, Calif., with two layovers. When that flight was delayed, then canceled, Southwest Airlines put her on a direct flight. Even though she didn't leave until 1 p.m., she was scheduled to arrive three hours earlier than she would have on her original itinerary.

Waiting was no problem, Frederick said. "I was prepared to wait five hours," she said. "I'm sure I can kill one or two."

Sun staff writer Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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