FRESNO, Calif. – Seemingly suspicious pieces of luggage delayed flights at two airports Tuesday, prompting evacuations in Minneapolis and closing a California airport where authorities discovered what turned out to be soft drink bottles filled with honey.
A passenger's suitcase tested positive for TNT at Bakersfield's Meadows Field during a routine swabbing of the bag's exterior, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. When Transportation Security Administration officials opened the bag, they found bottles filled with an amber liquid, he said.
The bag's owner, Francisco Ramirez, told TSA officers that the bottles were filled with honey, Youngblood said. Further testing confirmed that honey was the only substance present in the bottles, said FBI spokesman Steve Dupre. No traces of explosives were found.
"Why in this day and age would someone take a chance carrying honey in Gatorade bottles?" Youngblood said. "That itself is an alarm. It's hard to understand."
At the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a bomb-sniffing dog indicated there was something suspicious about a piece of luggage, causing authorities to call a bomb squad and clear parts of the airport for more than an hour.
But the bag was never put on a flight and nothing suspicious was found, officials said.
The piece of luggage was only a placeholder airline employees put on the luggage carousel to signal to other employees that all the bags have been unloaded from a flight, airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. In airport jargon, it's called a "last bag."
"It was kind of a beat-up old bag that was simply used as a marker," he said.
Investigators in California said Ramirez flew to Bakersfield Dec. 23 to spend Christmas with his sister and was returning Tuesday. The 31-year-old gardener from Milwaukee was not arrested and was cooperating with authorities, officials said.
When TSA agents opened one of the five bottles and tested the contents, the resulting fumes nauseated them, Youngblood said. Both were treated and released at a local hospital.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office bomb squad was performing further tests to determine why at least two positives were recorded for both TNT and the organic explosive acetone peroxide, or TATP.
Bakersfield is about 110 miles north of Los Angeles.
Investigators want to know whether any chemical Ramirez uses in his gardening work could have left traces of potential explosives. They will also run tests on the substance to see if the smoke beekeepers use to subdue the insects could have triggered a false positive test on honey.
All flights into and out of Meadows Field were canceled for much of Tuesday as authorities searched the terminal for other potential explosives.
The discovery came less than two weeks after a man was charged with trying to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day. He is alleged to have smuggled an explosive device on board the aircraft and set if off, but the device sparked only a fire and not the intended explosion.
Airline security has been tightened since the arrest.
Hogan said any number of things could have caused the dog at the Minneapolis airport to react. "We'll probably never know what it was," he said.
He said the dogs have been working more hours since the Detroit incident. However, he doubted overwork contributed to Tuesday's false indication.
While the Minneapolis airport's reaction annoyed some passengers, it didn't bother Cindy Kangas, 49, of Braham in east-central Minnesota, who arrived at the airport after the incident and was waiting in a long line at the security checkpoint.
She didn't think airport officials overreacted and instead showed they cared.
"For one thing, if it's them or their families they'd want to make sure it was all checked out," she said.