TSA: Everyone did ‘what they were supposed to do’ during chaotic airport security scare

Published: Jun. 20, 2019 at 7:29 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Officials are defending their actions during Tuesday’s airport security scare, in which a stampede left several people with minor injuries.

They also disputed accounts from travelers who said TSA agents yelled “fire!” and “run!"

“Everyone in the airport did exactly what they were supposed to do yesterday,” Jenel Cline, TSA security director for the Pacific region, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.

“I don’t know of anyone who said, ‘run, hide due to a fire.' No one was told to run that I’m aware of."

Also Wednesday, authorities corrected earlier information about what triggered the scare. They said the incident actually started because of an overheated external battery ― and not a laptop.

The amended details were released as federal and airport authorities Wednesday sought to offer clarification on their actions during the incident and its aftermath.

Tim Sakahara, state Transportation Department spokesman, said multiple agencies are working to figure out if the incident highlights any areas for improvement.

[Read more: ‘They had no plan’: Concerns raised over how airport handled security scare]

One concern: Announcements made over the PA system couldn’t be heard outside Terminal 2, where thousands were waiting after being evacuated.

The incident started about 2:10 p.m. Tuesday, when a piece of carry-on luggage that had just gone through a TSA screening device at a security checkpoint started to smoke and emit a foul odor.

Authorities say an external charger that was next to two laptop computers and a foam neck pillow overheated, sending large plumes of smoke into the security checkpoint area.

Authorities evacuated that checkpoint and about 20 seconds later, officials said, passengers heard a popping noise that sounded like gunshots.

“The noise happened and caused people to start panicking a little bit. not knowing what that noise source was," Cline said. "They did what they should have. They sought shelter. So they’re taught to ‘run, hide and fight’ ― in that order ― and that’s what they did.”

The state Transportation Department initially said the loud noise that sounded like gunshots was from the overheated device.

But on Wednesday, they said the “pops” actually came from stanchions ― those bars connected by nylon belts around security checkpoints.

Officials said as people evacuated, the stanchions fell over, “creating a ‘pop, pop, pop’ sound.”

The noise led some passengers “to think a gun was being fired.”

The security scare triggered what one passenger described as “pandemonium” as people ran in every direction. The TSA acknowledged that agents in an adjacent checkpoint allowed hundreds to flee into the secure area, thinking there was an actual threat.

Travelers also described a stampede as people ran away. Sakahara said three to five people were treated at the airport for minor injuries.

The rumors of an active shooter also had people crouching under chairs and hiding in hallways.

Passengers huddled on the floor during a false security scare at Honolulu's airport. (Image:...
Passengers huddled on the floor during a false security scare at Honolulu's airport. (Image: Adriana Virgen)

Cline, of the TSA, said in the moments just after the device started to smoke, there were no signs of panicked passengers.

“Everybody took it in stride and it was a very orderly,” she said. “There was no panic until after the checkpoint was evacuated.”

At 2:30 p.m., the state Transportation Department took to Twitter to urge calm and to confirm that no active shooter threat ever existed.

Authorities subsequently evacuated Terminal 2 completely and conducted a security sweep.

More than 40 outgoing flights were delayed well into the night, and crowds congregated on sidewalks outside the terminal ― which reopened about 6 p.m. ― as they waited to get through security lines.

As the hours dragged on, passengers said their fear and anxiety from the incident turned into frustration and anger over what they contended was a lack of communication from airport staff.

“They were absolutely not ready for this situation,” said Traveler Mireya Rogers, “and they’re 100 percent responsible for how bad it went.”

Like other travelers, Rogers said she distinctly heard TSA agents telling people to “run.”

She and her two children were caught up in the stampede. “There were people that were being trampled, there were kids that were lost, there were parents screaming for their kids," she said.

"My 10-year-old sprained his knee and its swollen, my 2-year-old got cut as we were running. There was a woman trampled, her legs were stepped on, her head was stepped on.”

Witness Rob Giunta also said he heard TSA agents yelling “fire” and “run.”

"Six more came from the other side, and said, ‘Run, get out, there’s a fire,' he said. "And everyone started stampeding each other, women being knocked down, kids.”

This story will be updated.

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