OIA finds lessons in response to chaos
How to communicate better at top of goals
Orlando International’s director acknowledged Monday that the airport needs to look at its communications procedures after it resorted to using bullhorns Friday night to try to quell the chaos caused by a passenger’s smoking electronics battery.
“We had people with bullhorns that were trying to get the message across,” director Phil Brown said.
Brown said the airport will look at using electronic billboards, a very loud announcement system tied to the airport’s fire alarm and other means to better communicate the status of an emergency.
Nearly 8,000 passengers were scheduled for outbound flights between 5 p.m., when the incident occurred, and 9 p.m., when the airport was gradually restoring operations.
Brown said the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, police, federal security agents and airlines held a “hot wash,” or debriefing, to evaluate how the airport could have dealt better with an otherwise innocuous event that triggered pandemonium and left crowds of jittery fliers stranded for hours.
Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said Monday her agency’s experts examined the device that burned and identified it as a “Raspberry Pi,” a compact computer that was “augmented” by a lithium battery.
Neither airport nor police officials would identify the airline passenger Monday, and Brown said no criminal charges were expected.
Thousands of passengers had to be re-screened because unchecked fliers had fled to secure, or what TSA refers to as “sterile,” areas.
Ricardo Perez, an Army veteran and 15-year TSA lead officer, was working with a canine unit when he heard a scream.
“And then another scream, and I heard somebody say ‘a bag’ and ‘a bomb,’ and when I walked over,
there was a bag, smoking,” Perez said.
There was no explosion, but the bag spewed choking white smoke, he said.
As passengers ran in all directions, screaming and knocking down luggage, trays and stanchions, Perez spoke briefly through his headset to other officers, then carried and placed the bag between a concrete column and planter, barriers he thought might absorb some of a would-be blast.
Perez recalled thinking: “It was like ‘OK, this could be it. I’m already this close, and if this is it, I’m done.’ ”
As the bag smoldered, he and other officers continued to clear the area, “carried small children with their parents, moved elderly away from the danger zone.”
All the while, new, unaware passengers were converging, at least briefly, on the area.
“We are told in situations like this, get them away, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the sterile area or not; just get them away, and we will figure that out later,” said Perez, who learned from training how devastating even a small explosive can be. “If they have to go that way, they have to go that way.”
The commotion began in the airport’s west side at the confined and often intensely crowded security checkpoint serving American, United and several international airlines.
Throughout the airport, the Orlando Police Department had on duty a lieutenant as watch commander, two sergeants and about 15 officers. They could do little to direct the stampede that followed.
“Human nature took its course,” Brown said. “There were a lot of people running for what they thought were their lives. So necessarily, they were trying to take cover and hide.”
Within minutes, panic spread through the central food court and to the security area at the east side of the airport, a more spacious checkpoint that serves Southwest and other airlines and is nearly the length of three football fields away from the west checkpoint.
Passengers who had not yet been checked by TSA officers flooded into the secure area, including the stations where passengers board shuttles to outlying hubs.
Some made it onto shuttles or followed outdoor walkways to the outlying gates at both sides of the airport, although Brown said he did not have an estimate of how many.
He said that though police and other responders quickly learned there was no threat, the ordinarily noisy airport could do little to get the attention of thousands of passengers.
TSA spokeswoman Koshetz said her agency had little choice but to call for the re-screening of passengers who had already cleared security and even those buckled into seats of planes backing away from gates.
“You could not identify the minute in time when the doors of those planes closed versus the time when people started running into the sterile area to get away from the perceived threat,” Koshetz said.
Orlando Police Department spokeswoman Michelle Guido said a call of possible shots fired came at 5:02 p.m.
Guido said agencies involved recognized the inconvenience resulting from the incident but worked to “ensure that people were safe, and remained safe.”
“What if, for example, the bag was a diversion tactic, and it was used so that another person could follow through with an actual attack?” Guido said.
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Arlene Salac said 27 planes were diverted to other airports, and 26 aircraft were delayed.
The airport’s east-side checkpoint got going again more than two hours after Perez came across the smoking bag, and the west checkpoint where the trouble started was operating about four hours later.
Perez said he and other officers in his shift had been scheduled to clock out at 8 p.m. They stayed until nearly midnight when the airport’s terminal was back to normal.