A magician who recently performed for a Super Bowl party at the Versace mansion inadvertently caused flights to be shut down for two hours Saturday at Palm Beach International Airport when screeners checking his bags found a butane canister that allows him to shoot flames from his wrists.
Illusionist Simon Winthrop, who has relatives in Delray Beach, had packed the equipment in his luggage for a flight to Los Angeles. The Transportation Security Administration discovered the tank in his checked bag about 9 a.m. Saturday.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office brought its bomb and arson squad to investigate. At 9:30, the airport evacuated the entire first floor and part of the second, forcing at least 1,000 passengers, ticket agents and airport employees to wait outside.
The sheriff's office sealed off roads leading to the airport in suburban West Palm Beach, and the Florida Highway Patrol diverted traffic from the Interstate 95 airport exit. Passengers from 16 arriving flights were held on their planes for up to two hours while the terminal was closed.
While the magician was on his plane, federal agents tracked down Winthrop's mother and knocked on the door at the home of his brother, a local attorney.
Relatives explained that he performed last weekend at a Super Bowl party former Dolphins coach Don Shula attended at the former Versace mansion, Casa Casuarina in South Beach. They then showed the agents pictures of Winthrop shooting flames out the arms of his suit.
Winthrop's Web site, , includes a picture of Jessica Simpson watching the same trick, and his picture made the National Enquirer last year, his mother said. Susan Winthrop said the butane canister looks nothing like an explosive, but sheriff's spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the bomb squad found it suspicious.
The whole incident, Susan Winthrop said, was "kind of embarrassing."
Winthrop is based in Las Vegas and performs for private parties and corporate events all over the country. A video on his Web site shows a sleight-of-hand where he slips a watch from Chelsea Clinton's wrist and makes it reappear several feet away in Bill Clinton's hand.
Winthrop obviously is not a terrorist and will not be charged with a crime, FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said.
Agents questioned Winthrop, 35, when he got off the plane to make his connection in Dallas, Orihuela said. He was allowed to continue on the second leg of his trip to Los Angeles.
The federal government could fine Winthrop if the materials in his checked luggage violate TSA rules, but a spokesman said Saturday said he didn't know if the items were prohibited.
Airport spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda said the scare unfolded during the busy midday period airport employees call "the noon balloon."
Hundreds of people trying to make flights or pick up relatives got stuck in the traffic jam on surrounding roads. Many got out of their cars to ask for information, and a few set off for the airport on foot. Two plopped down in beach chairs on the side of the road.
Glenda Ehlinger of Royal Palm Beach arrived at 9:30 a.m. as the sheriff's office was bringing in its bomb-sniffing dog. She was a little worried about her 72-year-old mother, who arrived at about 10 on an AirTran flight from Newport News, Va.
Her mom is diabetic, Ehlinger said, but hopefully would be OK while waiting on the plane. Ehlinger left to get coffee, then commiserated with stranded travelers outside the airport entrance.
"They should have little Porta Potties out here," she said.
As planes landed, pilots explained they would be stuck on the tarmac until the terminal reopened.
Passengers whipped out cellphones to call relatives, and many could see police cars from the runway. But most said the episode was nothing more than an inconvenience.
"There was a little bit of pandemonium, but nobody seemed particularly bothered," said Adam Grossman, who arrived on an American Airlines flight from New York to visit his parents in Boynton Beach.
"I don't really think of West Palm Beach as a terrorist target," he said.
The airport reopened for commercial flights at 11:30 a.m., with delays into the early afternoon.
The incident was similar to a scare on April 27, 2003, when investigators found a training device with wires and a flashing light in the bag of a Secret Service agent. PBIA was locked down for three hours.
Airport officials promised county commissioners after that incident that next time, the airport radio station would switch to special broadcasts so passengers worried about flights or loved ones could get updates.
But several travelers said Saturday they tuned in to the airport radio station, 1630 AM, and heard stock information about parking, with no mention of the lockdown.
Orihuela said airport employees were not able to send an update because they had to evacuate suddenly along with everyone else.
Officials from the sheriff's office, airport and FBI said they hope passengers with unusual possessions, like flame-throwing butane tanks, will anticipate attention from the TSA and declare the items in advance.
"You can't just bring this sort of a thing on a plane," Orihuela said.
Staff researcher Angelica Cortez contributed to this story.
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