January 6, 2010 in Nation/World

TSA’s false alarm a sticky issue

Bag that tested positive for TNT contained honey
Felix Adamo Bakersfield Californian photo

Kern County firemen remove an unknown substance at the Meadows Field terminal in Bakersfield, Calif., on Tuesday. Authorities say the suspicious material that prompted the shutdown of the airport turns out to be five bottles filled with honey. Bakersfield Californian
(Full-size photo)

FRESNO, Calif. – Seemingly suspicious pieces of luggage delayed flights at two airports Tuesday, prompting evacuations in Minneapolis and closing a California airport where authorities discovered what turned out to be soft drink bottles filled with honey.

A passenger’s suitcase tested positive for TNT at Bakersfield’s Meadows Field during a routine swabbing of the bag’s exterior, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. When Transportation Security Administration officials opened the bag, they found bottles filled with an amber liquid, he said.

The bag’s owner, Francisco Ramirez, told TSA officers that the bottles were filled with honey, Youngblood said. Further testing confirmed that honey was the only substance present in the bottles, said FBI spokesman Steve Dupre. No traces of explosives were found.

“Why in this day and age would someone take a chance carrying honey in Gatorade bottles?” Youngblood said. “That itself is an alarm. It’s hard to understand.”

At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a bomb-sniffing dog indicated there was something suspicious about a piece of luggage, causing authorities to call a bomb squad and clear parts of the airport for more than an hour.

But the bag was never put on a flight and nothing suspicious was found, officials said.

The piece of luggage was only a placeholder airline employees put on the luggage carousel to signal to other employees that all the bags have been unloaded from a flight, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. In airport jargon, it’s called a “last bag.”

“It was kind of a beat-up old bag that was simply used as a marker,” he said.

Investigators in California said Ramirez flew to Bakersfield Dec. 23 to spend Christmas with his sister and was returning Tuesday. The 31-year-old gardener from Milwaukee was not arrested and was cooperating with authorities, officials said.

When TSA agents opened one of the five bottles and tested the contents, the resulting fumes nauseated them, Youngblood said. Both were treated and released at a local hospital.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office bomb squad was performing further tests to determine why at least two positives were recorded for both TNT and the organic explosive acetone peroxide, or TATP.

Investigators want to know whether any chemical Ramirez uses in his gardening work could have left traces of potential explosives. They will also run tests on the substance to see if the smoke beekeepers use to subdue the insects could have triggered a false positive test on honey.

All flights into and out of Meadows Field were canceled for much of Tuesday as authorities searched the terminal for other potential explosives.

The discovery came less than two weeks after a man was charged with trying to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day.

Airline security has been tightened since the arrest.

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