Thursday, April 05, 2012

Terminal at Newark airport evacuated after man enters secure area through exit

NEWARK — Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport was partially evacuated for an hour today and hundreds of passengers had to be rescreened after a British man entered a secure area through an exit, walking past a "Do Not Enter" sign and a distracted TSA screener, authorities said.

The 64-year-old man, Charan Jit Singh, who was headed to meet a family member at an arrival gate, has been charged with trespassing. The female screener has been removed from duties pending an investigation by the Transportation Security Administration, authorities said.

"He went in the out door, in other words," said Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the Port Authority Police.

There was no indication Singh intended anything other than to meet a family member, Della Fave said

The gate area beyond Checkpoint 1, one of three secure areas inside Terminal B, was evacuated for about an hour while Port Authority police swept the area with bomb-sniffing dogs. Nothing was found.

The breach, which occurred at about 2:45 p.m., was reminiscent of similar incident in January 2010 when Terminal C was shut down for hours and air travel disrupted worldwide after a Rutgers University student entered an exit lane — walking past a vacated security post — to be with his departing girlfriend.

That incident and a string of other embarrassing breaches earlier last year resulted in the removal of Newark’s top TSA official, whose replacement is overseeing a crackdown that has led to dozens of screeners being retrained or disciplined.

In addition, a federal law signed in December included provisions inserted by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that stiffened penalties against people trying circumvent airport security and directed the TSA to study ways to improve security at exits to secure areas.

Today's incident, Lautenberg said in a statement last night, is "just another example of how exit lanes are an area of vulnerability at our airports."

Passengers said they were notified of today’s breach when an announcement over the public address system ordered them to leave the area. Minutes later, they said, heavily armed Port Authority police officers converged on the area.

"Obviously, I’m concerned about (the breach)," Scott Zepplin, 44, a software engineer from Jacksonville, Fla., said as he waited to be rescreened. "That’s their whole purpose, to keep it safe down there. That’s definitely a dereliction of duty."

The breach was discovered after Singh encountered a Delta Airlines gate agent who realized he should not have been in the area, Della Fave said. The gate agent called TSA officials who notified Port Authority police. Della Fave said police later viewed a videotape that showed Singh walking past the TSA screener, who failed to make eye contact with him.

"The TSA agent was clearly seen talking to another passenger, who was looking for the AirTrain," Della Fave said.

TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in a statement that the unidentified screener "was immediately removed from all screening duties, pending the outcome of an official review of the incident.

"The terminal was deemed safe and passengers were permitted back into the terminal at 3:55 p.m. Four flights were affected," Farbstein’s statement said.

Brian Caffrey’s flight from Florida was one of those affected.

Caffrey, a retired police officer from South Brunswick, said his plane had just landed when the evacuation was ordered.

"We got stuck out on the tarmac, waiting for whatever it was to be over," Caffrey said.

Eileen and Herb Frey, a retired couple from Las Vegas visiting their daughter in Freehold, said their connecting flight from Detroit was redirected to an international arrivals gate, where they were met by confusion and a hassle collecting their bags.

"They didn’t know what to do with us," Eileen Frey said. "We had to walk and walk and walk and walk."

"They wanted to put us through customs," added her husband, keeping his sense of humor despite the ordeal. "Detroit’s Hell, but it’s still the United States."

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