OIA finds les­sons in re­sponse to chaos

How to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter at top of goals

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Spear Staff Writer

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.

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