A man rushed past an Oakland International Airport security checkpoint Friday morning, evading Oakland, Alameda County and Transportation Security Administration authorities and forcing as many as 1,500 people to evacuate the airport for an hour, delaying some flights for up to two hours.
The incident began about 11 a.m. in Southwest Airlines Terminal 2, where the unidentified man walked up to an unarmed Alameda County Sheriffs Department aide, asked a question, then ran up stairs that serve as an exit for arriving passengers, and headed into the airports secure boarding area.
He was told not to enter and he entered anyway, sheriffs department spokesman J.D. Nelson said.
Sheriffs department and Oakland police officers searched the terminal for the man but could not find him.
At noon, authorities began clearing the terminal area, which traverses Oaklands two terminals, airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said.
Departing planes that already had loaded their passengers were searched and allowed to take off once cleared, Barnes said. Arriving planes were allowed to land, but their passengers and crews had to wait for the security sweep before they could disembark.
At 1 p.m., travelers were allowed back into the terminals, where they were required to go through security screening again.
Authorities and passengers could only speculate about why the gate-crasher acted to cause such headaches for travelers and airport workers.
He was probably late to catch his flight, mused Patrick Simon, 49, of Oakland as he waited outside the terminal in a plastic-domed bus shelter with Adam Hurlbut, 34, who had just arrived from Lake Arrowhead so his 4-year-old daughter, Adama, could visit her grandfather in Oakland.
These days, you cant do that, Hurlbut replied. This just messes with everybody.
The trouble was particularly acute for Simon, who, as chief technical officer for the Alameda County Office of Education, was on his way to a disaster recovery conference in New Orleans.
Simon said he was poised to board a Southwest flight to Houston when the airport was evacuated: I was putting my ticket in the hand of the ticket-taker when they shut it down.
Asked whether the incident exposed a weakness in the airports security, Nelson pointed out that the threat was eliminated, even if the intruder eluded authorities.
The sheriffs department aides who guard the passenger exits are armed only with radios and are not permitted to leave their posts, so they could not pursue the intruder, Nelson said. He added, however, that the aides were able to notify other airport authorities of the breach immediately.
Somebody might say they need to have police officers at every post, but the cost of that would be prohibitive, Nelson said.
Airport security experts said the incident showed both the efficiency and the weaknesses of how Oakland and other airports guard against intruders.
On the one hand, authorities knew immediately that security had been breached and took steps to make sure the terminals were safe, so you could assert that the system worked, said Brian Jenkins, author of Unconquerable Nation: Knowing our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves, published this fall by Rand Books.
But such breaches and airport disruption could be prevented by something as simple as a revolving door that allows passengers only to exit, said Jenkins, a former member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security.
Issy Boim, a Texas-based security consultant who helped develop Israels El Al Airlines legendary security system, said the incident didnt show a problem with the person guarding the exit, but with the next layer or ring of security.
There should be a response on the other side, Boim said. Security needs to be backed up in a way that if one ring doesnt stop someone, somebody on the other side is supposed to handle it.
Joe Standley, president of the Pinole-based California District Council of Ironworkers, had the distinction of being at the end of the line to re-enter Terminal 2 after the security shut-down.
I dont get too excited about it, he said cheerfully as he followed hundreds of other passengers across the airports deserted traffic lanes. Its some kind of security breach, Im told, but well get through it. Its Friday, after all.
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