Posted on Mon, May. 12, 2003

Passenger jet held at MIA while caller's tip checked
BY KARL ROSS
kross@herald.com

Acting on a tip that a Miami-bound flight was laden with weapons of mass destruction, authorities detained a Swiss flight when it landed at Miami International Airport on Sunday and scoured the plane for terrorist devices, taking one ''suspect passenger'' into custody.

The anonymous tip alluded to either biological or chemical weapons aboard the flight, which originated in Zurich, Switzerland, and arrived at MIA at 5:17 p.m., authorities said.

A female passenger of Indian descent was identified as the suspect and detained. Members of a Miami-Dade County hazardous materials team wearing chemical protection suits boarded the plane and screened the woman for contaminants before handing her over to police, authorities said.

Four hours after the Airbus passenger jet landed, authorities determined the tip was a hoax and released the woman, FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said. More than 130 passengers were not allowed to leave the plane during the entire time that the aircraft was searched.

''Everything is negative,'' Orihuela said. ``It looks like somebody just didn't like this woman. So she's been cleared. Nothing was in her bags.''

Orihuela declined to identify the passenger at the center of the ordeal.

``She didn't do anything wrong. There was nothing in her bag. We talked to her, we interviewed her. The threat was just to get her in trouble.''

Orihuela said the FBI will attempt to trace the phone call and identify the culprit.

The terrorism scare kept public safety officials apprehensive Sunday evening, as speculation spread that the plane might contain a highly lethal device.

''They're saying it's some kind of weapon of mass destruction. It could be biological; who knows?'' County Manager Steve Shiver said, before the threat was dismissed.

Zachary Mann, senior agent with the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said the bogus tip was made while Swiss Flight No. 64 was in the air. He said at least 136 people were aboard.

After it landed, the plane was escorted to an isolated ramp on the northwest corner of the airport known as ''the penalty box.'' Members of a Miami-Dade fire-rescue hazardous materials team checked the plane and the cargo hold for weapons.

''It just goes to show you that we take it very seriously, as do the other agencies involved in addressing this,'' Mann said. ``Thank God that it was nothing.''

Officials from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention had converged on MIA and were considering whether to hold the passengers in quarantine.

Shanti Hall, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue Department, said the CDC opted instead to interview the passengers and keep tabs on their whereabouts for the next 10 days.

Hall said four hazmat units conducted the initial sweep of the aircraft.

''They found nothing,'' she said.

Passengers were removed from the plane and screened by hazmat team members one by one. Only female passengers were allowed to remove their purses. Other carry-on luggage had to stay on the plane, she said.