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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2007-09-24

I Shut Down The Little Rock Airport
By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY

Photo by Eileen Blass / USA TODAY

Photo by Eileen Blass / USA TODAY

A Lightware bag filled with photographic equipment was the cause of the evacuation of the terminal building at Little Rock National Airport. The smaller black bag in the foreground was packed inside the large Lightware.
Airline travel is a pain these days. I have been a staff photographer with USA TODAY for the last 18 years and I fly frequently. I've had my share of airport delays. Haven't we all? Lost luggage, long security lines, canceled flights, the works. Since 9/11, the two words I have heard most are "bag check". My travels on Friday August 24, 2007 gave the words "bag check" a whole new meaning.

I was in Little Rock, Arkansas working on a story with my colleague, reporter Andrea Stone. When our reporting was complete, Andrea and I headed for Little Rock National Airport for flights home.

After checking in at the Delta counter, I dragged my lighting kit and luggage cart over to the TSA folks at the In-Vision CTX machine. This is a large x-ray machine used to examine checked bags. With my bag dropped off, Andrea and I headed to the airport restaurant for a bite to eat. I was enjoying my roast beef sandwich, when 20 minutes into our meal we --- and all others in the restaurant --- were told to leave immediately and proceed to the terminal exit.

Jeez, an EVACUATION!

That was a new one for me. Into news mode I went, photographing passengers heading for the exits and waiting outside. I poked around the parking lot looking for different angles. Police and fire vehicles were on the scene.

Andrea, standing just inside the terminal entrance with other passengers, had just made a call to USA TODAY offices to report the evacuation. An airport official approached and asked if there was anyone on Delta Flight #4307 by the name of Blass. Andrea couldn't believe what she was hearing. She spoke up that she was my colleague and told the official that I was outside.

I was standing in the parking lot, calling my husband at home in Pennsylvania to ask him if there was something I should know, like…were we being attacked? With Andrea shouting my name, I hung up before the connection to my husband went through. Who was that official with Andrea, I wondered? I bet he'd tell us what was going on.

I was ready to ask questions, but he had a few for me. "Are you Eileen Blass" Yup, I said. "Are you flying out on Delta?" Uh huh. "Did you check a large black bag?" Yes. Then I heard my heartbeat in my head. Andrea and I looked at each other. Huh? This was my entire fault?

Photo by Eileen Blass / USA TODAY

Photo by Eileen Blass / USA TODAY

Passengers stand outside the terminal building at Little Rock National Airport. The airport was evacuated for about 30 minutes because a TSA screener flagged a suspicious bag belonging to USA TODAY staff photographer Eileen Blass.
I was escorted into the terminal and Andrea was asked to wait in a seating area. No, I explained, she's my colleague and we needed to be together. Besides, who was going to take notes!!! Larry Gillan of the Little Rock police department said that the bomb squad had been called because whatever was in the bag was showing as not normal, coming up "bright red" on monitors. I gave Larry a detailed description of what was in the checked bag: Dyna-Lite power packs, three flash heads, light stands, umbrellas, and a black bag containing wires and cables for my radio remotes. Officials were asking me questions.

I passed around my press credentials. I told them I had flown into town the day before with the bag. Andrea was taking notes. Someone asked to see my driver's license. What was my date of birth, my address, my phone number? This couldn't be happening.

Bernie Sherwood of the Little Rock Fire Department asked me about the bag's contents. He noted there was a "lot of wiring in there." He explained that the only thing they didn't see were the "detonators", which Sherwood said was "the big concern for me." He asked about the black bag of wires, which was what gave them the most grief. Eventually, my lighting kit was deemed safe and the airport, closed for about 30 minutes, reopened. Passengers filed in, many grumbling on their cellphones. I overheard a few choice words.

But wait, this wasn't over yet. I stepped outside to catch my breath. Oh…my…God…the media had arrived. Live TV trucks, a reporter doing a stand up, video being shot, a still photographer walking around, a man carrying a reporter's notebook. It was "breaking news." Watching the scene unfold, I felt like I was watching my own funeral. It was creepy.

Having seen enough, I went back into the terminal. The day didn't improve a whole lot. I proceeded to the passenger security checkpoint with my carry-on, a rolling "Airport Security" camera bag. Placing the bag on the conveyor belt, naturally I expected to hear those two little words, and I did. "BAG CHECK!" I was told everything had to come out of the bag, be placed in a tray, and run through the x-ray again.

Would somebody please tell me what the heck is going on?

This was more than swab treatment. I asked why, were these new procedures? The TSA lady said they have to do this now. Interesting, nobody did that in Philadelphia the previous day. She hoisted my carry-on bag and trays, filled precariously with cameras and lenses, back to the x-ray machine. Thankfully, I passed inspection and was free to go to my gate.

Photo by Eileen Blass / USA TODAY

Photo by Eileen Blass / USA TODAY

Members of the media gather outside the terminal building at Little Rock National Airport after reports of a suspicious checked piece of luggage. The airport was evacuated for about 30 minutes.
I was flying home to Philadelphia through Atlanta. But, the flight to Atlanta was delayed for hours by bad weather. I had a sinking feeling that my connection to Philadelphia would be long gone by the time I got to Atlanta.

But hey, how much worse can this get? At least it wasn't my fault. With three hours to wait, I plopped down on the concourse floor, pulled out my laptop and surfed the Net. I found breaking news reports from local TV websites about my little baggage debacle. Here's a couple of links:
http://player.clipsyndicate.com/view/1805/379062?cpt=8
http://tinyurl.com/324kr6

Arriving in Atlanta after midnight, I was now stranded with crowds of other frustrated passengers delayed by weather. There was no way home that night. Delta rebooked me on a flight the next afternoon. But there was no way in hell I was going to sleep on the concourse floor. Not this night, anyway. I was tired, hungry, and grumpy and would have very much appreciated a shot of Chivas. I found a hotel and needed to sleep. But the day kept swirling in my head. Security is tight everywhere these days.

Every time I fly, I am reminded of what 9/11 did to us. We are all reminded by it. This whole debacle seemed funny but it was really quite serious. I learned that my daughter literally rolled on the floor in stitches when she heard someone thought her mom might be a threat to the flying public. She was eight years old when 9/11 happened. I covered 9/11, and I understood why security officials were being vigilant. It's their job.

The travel day from hell did have one little ray of sunshine. When all the questioning was done in Little Rock, Larry Gillan of the Little Rock Police Department lingered. He had asked me lots of questions earlier about the contents of my bag. He wasn't finished with me just yet. Larry, I might add, was a really pleasant guy.

When all the officials were done with their questions, Larry posed one more, in a manner reminiscent of Peter Falk's character, Columbo. "I have one last question for you, ma'am." He wanted to know if a lens hood would be a smart purchase for one of his own photographic lenses. I obliged by giving him a brief explanation on why a lens hood was a very good idea. You know…one should never miss an opportunity to talk shop.


(Eileen Blass is a staff photographer with USA TODAY. She is married to John Walston and they have two teenage children. She is not a threat to national security. You can view a sample of her work on her SportsShooter.com member page:
http://www.sportsshooter.com/eblass.)

Related Links:
Eileen's member page

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