Julia O'Malley: When a thoughtless stranger steals precious time

Julia O'Malley

When Diana Titus, a 68-year-old retired teacher, boarded a plane in Fairbanks on Saturday night, she had one thing on her mind. She wanted to hold her father's hand. He was in Sacramento. He was 88 years old. His kidneys were failing. Her brother called. Get there, he said. It's time.

Titus' flight landed in Anchorage close to midnight. She went to her gate at Ted Stevens International to wait for her connection to Portland. From there, it was on to California. She'd see her dad's face by morning.

As Titus settled in at the gate, she watched the agent dealing with the last few passengers. Boarding was about to begin. Then the agent's expression changed.

"She says, 'Get out of here!' " Titus said. " 'Go, get to an exit right away. Leave your carry-on.' "

It took the people waiting at the gate a second to absorb the information. Then they started to move. Other passengers at other gates hadn't gotten the message yet. They stared at the growing herd rushing down the concourse. Then they moved too. At the TSA checkpoint, the agents stopped the crowd, but then a message came over their radios. Get out of the airport, they said. Evacuate.

Soon Titus stood with a group of people outside the doors to the baggage claim. The night felt bitter. There were restaurant workers in short-sleeve shirts and toddlers in footed pajamas. A half hour passed. Passengers with luggage shared extra sweatshirts and blankets.

This was not the plan, Titus kept thinking. She tried to call her family in California. She couldn't get them. Her father couldn't have taken the phone call anyway. She thought of him, a tough World War II veteran who adored his wife for nearly 50 years and made each of his six children feel like the favorite. He was lying there surrounded by her family and a hospice nurse. Everyone but her. Why wasn't she on a plane?

She never could have guessed the answer. About the time Titus landed in Anchorage, another passenger, a man named Peter Friesema, was checking in for an Alaska Airlines flight. He is a 44-year-old Colorado hockey referee who'd officiated a UAA tournament over the weekend. The ticket agent accidentally put his baggage sticker on his friend's bag. He mentioned it to the agent. She told him it didn't matter because they were traveling together. Then, in what the district attorney later said was "perhaps an effort to be funny or flirtatious," Friesema said something along the lines of "But my friend's bag has a bomb in it."

It was an offhand comment. The agent didn't think it was funny. She thought it was dangerous and alerted airport authorities of a possible bomb threat. That triggered the evacuation. Friesema was arrested in the Alaska Airlines Boardroom. Airport police wanted to charge him with disorderly conduct and making terroristic threats, a felony. In the end, he was charged only with disorderly conduct. Investigators tracked down and searched the luggage. There was, of course, no bomb.

In the cold outside the airport early Sunday morning, none of the people waiting with Titus knew any of that. An Alaska Airlines agent named Dana, who wore only a thin sweater, stayed with them in the freezing cold, keeping people calm. Titus vacillated between worrying about her father and worrying about what was happening in the airport.

"We knew it was something very, very serious but we didn't know what," Titus said. "You didn't know if someone would pull up with a gun. You didn't know if there was going to be explosions."

Eventually buses arrived to take people to another terminal. Titus didn't want to leave the airport. She had to get on a flight. The group moved inside, near the rental car area. Passengers talked about what missing the flight meant. One of them had NFL tickets. He would miss the game. A woman had been away from her husband for a long time. Now their time together would be shorter. A man stressed about missing a job interview. Titus didn't tell her story. She just prayed for her father.

There was no announcement but people started to venture back into the main part of the airport, still unsure of what had happened. Titus followed. A line had formed at the TSA checkpoint. A TSA agent began directing them.

"I have a new respect for TSA," Titus said. "People working there were smiling. They kept thanking us, which was really cool."

At 4 a.m. Titus got on a plane to Portland. It took off at 5:15. In Portland, she ran through the terminal, only to watch the flight she was supposed to take to California pull away from the gate.

"At that point tears just started coming," she said.

An Alaska Airlines gate agent booked her on the next available flight. It was at 3:30 p.m. She spent the day in the airport. She sat at the gate watching flights arrive and depart every half hour. Each passing minute stung. Finally, she heard the call to board.

Her brother met her in the Sacramento airport. Her father was barely lucid when she arrived at his apartment. He couldn't see well but when she got close to him, he recognized her. He told her he loved her. She slipped her hand in his. She and her sister spent the night that way. He died the next day.

"I was there for a very peaceful end," she said.

Of course, she said, she wished she'd had more time with him. She'd missed him when he was alert, when he was talking. She'd missed being with her family as they gathered around him.

It wasn't until later she found out what caused the delay at the airport. A stupid joke that set off massive chaos. What a waste of time.

"That person has no idea the impact," she said. "For heaven's sake, what was he thinking?"

An earlier version of this column said incorrectly that Friesema was charged with disorderly conduct and making terroristic threats. Airport police referred both of those charges to the district attorney's office, but prosecutors chose to charge Friesema only with disorderly conduct. 


Julia O'Malley
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