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False alarm in bag screening evacuates Airside F at Tampa International Airport

The Tampa International Airport evacuated Airside F at 1:11 p.m. and sent everyone outside to the tarmac. (Courtesy of Debra Schmidt Phillips-Taddeo)
The Tampa International Airport evacuated Airside F at 1:11 p.m. and sent everyone outside to the tarmac. (Courtesy of Debra Schmidt Phillips-Taddeo)
Published Jan. 2, 2017

TAMPA — Lucy Perkins was eating in the Hard Rock Cafe in Tampa International Airport, waiting for her flight on New Year's Day, when she heard the announcement:

Officials were shutting down Airside F.

Rumors of a bomb threat spread through the airport as several hundred people were hastily evacuated onto the tarmac at 1:07 p.m. after a carry-on bag set off an alarm while going through a screening device.

By 2:10 p.m., the area was cleared, and soon afterward officials announced it was a false alarm — but it left some passengers with an eerie feeling in light of recent terror attacks on holidays, such as in Nice, France, on Bastille Day, Berlin during a Christmas market and in an Istanbul nightclub on New Year's Eve.

"It's kind of scary to get on an airplane now," said Perkins, 24, as she waited in a crowd outside Airside F for her flight to Washington, D.C.

Passenger safety was never compromised, and the airport is always prepared for such events, whether it's a holiday or not, said John Tiliacos, the airport's vice president of operations and customer service.

"We are always on heightened alert," Tiliacos said. "We are always vigilant."

While passengers like Perkins waited anxiously in the main terminal for any word of the cause, those in Airside F were evacuated onto the tarmac and bused away from the terminal.

The situation also affected arriving flights. The trip from Panama City seemed normal to 13-year-old Juanita Zuluaga of Colombia. The plane landed safely without any indication of a threat. But after she and her mother went through immigration, they were told to go outside.

"I was scared, because I didn't know what was happening," she said. "They didn't tell us anything; we only got the rumors."

At one point, she said she and her mother overheard someone say a bomb threat was called in to the airport.

Another traveler, Debra Schmidt Phillips-Taddeo, said she was sitting in an Airside F restaurant when she saw everyone "get up from the tables and start running."

Outside, Phillips-Taddeo said travelers were given little information but were led to buses to take them away from the tarmac. Passengers then had to go back through security screenings to board their planes.

A flight from the Cayman Islands landed moments after the shutdown. Stuck in his seat for more than an hour, Zealand Shannon, 20, watched from his window as people boarded buses.

"(The pilot) had no clue what was happening, along with everyone else," he said.

Transportation Security Administration agents were able to quickly determine it was a false alarm, Tiliacos said. No flights were canceled.

"The TSA team did an extraordinary job . . . to quickly get our customers rescreened and on their way," he said.

In total, four departing American Airlines planes were delayed and two arriving flights were diverted to other parts of the airport. About a thousand passengers were affected by the afternoon's events, Tiliacos said.

The rest of the airport remained open and operating during the evacuation. Airside F is one of four extending from the main terminal and services international flights through American Airlines, British Airways, Cayman Airways, Copa Airlines, Edelweiss Air and Lufthansa.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com and Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com.

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