TAMPA — A bomb scare forced the evacuation of the cruise check-in terminal at the Port of Tampa on Thursday, locking down several nearby schools and delaying the departure of Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas while authorities tried to figure out what explosives-sniffing dogs had smelled.
Two dogs detected something on a pallet containing liquor bound for the ship, authorities said. But after a four-hour search that involved a bomb robot, more law enforcement dogs and technicians in heavy bomb suits, authorities found nothing suspicious.
Federal, state and local investigators were left scratching their heads. Perhaps the dogs caught a whiff of a lingering scent — something previously shipped on the pallet or in the same truck, said Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera.
"But for every dog to consistently hit like that," he said, "that was not a mistake."
Late Thursday night, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office issued a statement that might answer what the dogs smelled. The Sheriff's Office said it found a white powder, later identified as magnesium nitrate hexahydrate, while it was doing controlled detonations of items taken from the scene.
The chemical can be used as an ingredient in explosives, and some law enforcement dogs are trained to smell for it. The chemical can also be used in fireworks and fertilizers, the Sheriff's Office said. By itself, the chemical is not explosive. It was unclear why the chemical would be on a pallet of liquor about to be loaded onto a cruise ship.
The liquor came from a warehouse in Miami and traveled by truck to Tampa. It was never opened in transit, Previtera said. Federal authorities will likely check the warehouse, he said.
A Royal Caribbean security dog detected the suspicious odor at 9 a.m. during a routine pre-cruise check. The Sheriff's Office was called in at 10:09 a.m., and the agency's bomb-sniffing dog also fixated on the same pallet.
Soon-to-be passengers for the 4 p.m. departure were evacuated from the check-in terminal about 10 a.m. by security officers. No one panicked or ran, though first-time cruiser Sarah Ferguson, 31, said she was a bit concerned.
"I got kind of worried because of the bombing on Monday," said Ferguson of Tampa. "It's got everybody paranoid."
Authorities said their response would not have been different before Monday's bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Tampa Port Authority security director Mark Dubina said dogs have detected suspicious odors before, but the investigations are usually concluded quickly. This one grew as investigators struggled to determine what the dogs had smelled.
Early in the afternoon, cruise passengers, ready to board the ship headed to Cozumel, Mexico, waited across Channelside Drive with their luggage.
Marjorie Thomas, 49, of Pittsburgh said passengers did not panic because security officers remained calm and organized and were forthcoming with information.
"They kept us well informed," Thomas said.
Thomas, who was there to take her 102nd cruise, said she had never been evacuated before. Around her, cruisers got an early start on their vacation suntans and joked about wanting pina coladas. Scores of Thomas' fellow passengers flooded the Channelside area, causing unexpected waits at restaurants.
By 1:30 p.m., deputies had completed their initial search and found no bomb or bomb materials on the pallet in question.
Nearby, the Rampello Downtown Partnership School, Philip Shore and DeSoto elementary schools were placed on lockdown. The schools were eventually dismissed normally.
About 3 p.m., the terminal was reopened, and the check-in process resumed. The Jewel of the Seas departed three hours late at 7 p.m.