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Airport officials, not the TSA, decided to evacuate airport

Michelle Theriault Boots

State airport police, not the federal Transportation Security Administration, made the decision to evacuate Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport early Sunday morning after a passenger joked about a bomb in luggage, officials said Monday.

The evacuation prompted costly flight delays and missed connections and left hundreds of passengers waiting in the cold while authorities determined that Peter Friesema's statement to an Alaska Airlines agent that his friend's bag had "a bomb in it" was not a credible threat.

Authorities now agree that the Colorado hockey referee was making a bad joke in a worse venue.

Prosecutor Adam Alexander told the judge at Friesema's court appearance on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge Sunday that the comment was "perhaps an effort to be funny or flirtatious."

It had been unclear who was responsible for ordering the shutdown.

Some critics quickly blamed the oft-maligned TSA.

Actually, the TSA does not have final authority to evacuate the terminal, said airport manager John Parrott.

"Ultimately, that lies with the airport," he said.

TSA personnel were "consulted about (the) decision prior to the evacuation of the terminal," said agency spokeswoman Lorie Dankers Monday.

She would not elaborate on what that consultation consisted of.

Dankers said the agency hadn't heard feedback from the public on the incident directly.

Sunday's shutdown was the first time since 2009 that a threat prompted an evacuation at the airport, Parrott said. In that case, a piece of luggage thought to contain an explosive turned out to have an electronic cash register in it instead.

An evacuation isn't necessarily mandatory when someone says the word "bomb" or makes a threat at the airport, he said.

"There is discretion involved," he said. "There's judgment involved."

In this case, the Alaska Airlines agent alerted her supervisor and a chain of command that ultimately led to airport police making the decision to evacuate.

"When there is a perceived threat to the safety of the traveling public our first response is to attempt to remove the public from that danger," Parrott said.

Some passengers and online critics have said that the evacuation was a costly overreaction.

Officials err on the side of caution, Parrott said.

"We're certainly open to criticism if people believe we overreact, but I can live with that a lot easier than the potential of under-reacting," he said.

Others have complained that the evacuation seemed haphazard and airport staff didn't keep people informed on what was going on.

Lessons -- especially on communicating with the public during an evacuation -- can be learned from the experience, Parrott said. Agencies involved will hold a meeting later this week to discuss just that, he said.

Peter Friesema posted $1,500 bail on Monday, according to court documents.

His bail conditions require him to stay in Alaska until at least his next court date, scheduled for November. That could change if his attorney asks for new bail conditions that would allow him to leave the state.

And the suitcase that prompted the joke?

According to Parrott, it's now evidence in the criminal case against Friesema.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com