Flu-stricken passenger was cause of BWI quarantine

Incident was approached as `a worst-case scenario'

July 17, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

It was much ado about a simple case of the stomach flu.

That was the diagnosis in the aftermath of Thursday night's incident at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that drew emergency vehicles -- and television news crews -- to the scene after reports of illness aboard a Southwest Airlines flight from Houston.

The plane was even quarantined and boarded by a hazardous materials crew after landing about 10:30 p.m.

It turned out that a sick woman had boarded the plane in Houston, vomited while on board and caused three other passengers to feel ill. She was treated at North Arundel Hospital and released early yesterday morning. The three other passengers refused treatment.

The plane's other 120 travelers and crew members were kept on the plane for about 40 minutes, but other airport operations continued without interruption, a BWI spokeswoman said.

"We're grateful this situation was a non-event and that all of the passengers aboard the Southwest flight are OK," Jim Ports, the state's assistant secretary of transportation, said in a statement yesterday.

Initial news reports about critical illnesses, airplane fumes and unconscious passengers may have been products of post-Sept. 11 sensitivity. But the massing of emergency vehicles around the plane could just as easily have happened in 1994, said Tracy Newman, spokeswoman for the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Newman said the handling of Flight 1283 followed normal protocol. The captain of the plane reported a sick passenger to a Federal Aviation Administration tower. FAA officials contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the BWI operations tower. BWI officials summoned local emergency crews and alerted the news media.

"We treat it as if it's a worst-case scenario," Newman said.

Newman said that in such situations, airport officials don't know what they are dealing with initially. Given concerns about bioterrorism and diseases such as SARS, they want to be prepared for anything, she said.

Responses such as Thursday's might seem overblown but are understandable, said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security.

He pointed out that victims of severe acute respiratory syndrome showed symptoms similar to those of flu patients. "But if you let them just walk off the plane, you could have an epidemic on your hands," Greenberger said.

Isolation is the first step, Newman said, so airport officials stopped the plane about 50 feet from its terminal. The hazardous materials crew then entered the plane, searching for suspicious substances and testing the air. After the crew found nothing unusual, passengers were allowed off the aircraft.

Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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