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Security breach at San Francisco airport delays flights

Evacuees brave the chill Wednesday outside the San Francisco International Airport after a security breach. A terminal, primarily for United Airlines, later reopened.
Evacuees brave the chill Wednesday outside the San Francisco International Airport after a security breach. A terminal, primarily for United Airlines, later reopened.  

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- Dozens of flights at San Francisco International Airport were delayed Wednesday and thousands of passengers faced rescreening after a security breach involving a screening company that has been criticized before for lapses.

The incident began shortly before 7 a.m. PST when screeners detected residue on a man's shoes that could have come from explosives. But the man -- who was stopped for a random check -- was given back his shoes and left the area before he could be questioned further, an airport official said.

Authorities then evacuated Terminal 3, which primarily serves United Airlines, to search for the man or any signs of trouble. The man was not found.

"I don't want to accuse somebody of not doing their job," said Ron Wilson, an airport spokesman. "We're certainly going to look into that."

Authorities gave only a vague description of the man, saying he was white and in his 40s. Bomb-sniffing dogs and a search of the terminal found no evidence of explosives, and passengers were allowed back in for rescreening after being kept outside for several hours.

Argenbright Security is responsible for United's screening. Argenbright has gotten into trouble before over security lapses, including an October incident in which a man slipped by a screening area at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with knives and a stun gun.

Commenting on the Wednesday incident, Mike McCarron, assistant director at the San Francisco airport, said the man "got lost in the crowd" before authorities could question him.

A Federal Aviation Administration official said the man should not have been permitted to leave the security check before the tests were complete.

"This is not consistent with screener training," the official said.

'Organized chaos'

Several passengers expressed frustration.

One woman said airport authorities provided little information about what was happening when they asked people to clear the area.

"I'd like to call it organized chaos, but it really wasn't even that well organized in my opinion," she said.

Authorities said they didn't know if the man posed any danger or what the residue indicated. The residue could have been from anything that is made of nitrates, including bombs or explosives such as gunpowder, dynamite or fireworks; household chemicals and fertilizers; or even nitroglycerin heart medication, McCarron said.

The FAA official said the detection equipment used to test for explosives has a low "nuisance" or false-alarm rate.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers were asked to clear the terminal -- home to about 30 gates -- before they were let back in for rescreening. Airport officials said 27 outbound flights were delayed and another six incoming flights that had landed were waiting for gates.

More incoming flights were expected to be delayed, officials said.

The FAA official said seven United flights departed the airport before the agency was notified of the incident. Four have landed at their destinations, where the passengers were rescreened. The other three flights have been told to land in Chicago, where only one had been scheduled to arrive, so that the passengers can be rescreened.

In December, the FAA issued a security alert to step up examination of passenger shoes, concerned that "hijackers might attempt to smuggle dissembled weapons on board an airliner by hiding weapon components in their shoes."

Days later, Richard Reid allegedly attempted to ignite his explosive-filled shoes aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris, France, to Miami, Florida.

In May 2000, the federal government put Argenbright on probation for three years and fined it $1.55 million because of some illegal employment practices, including the hiring of people with criminal backgrounds at Philadelphia International Airport.

In November, the Justice Department filed a motion against Argenbright charging violations of the probation.

In addition, the FAA fined United, which contracted Argenbright for its security services, $44,000 in civil penalties as a result of the October incident at the Chicago airport.

An FAA official said United also could be fined for the San Francisco breach.

Besides the San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago airports, Argenbright provides security at several other U.S. airports, including New Jersey's Newark International Airport and Washington's Dulles International Airport.


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