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White powder in luggage sparks LaGuardia panic

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The discovery of a piece of checked luggage containing a mysterious white powder and a gas mask prompted officials to close the American Airlines ticketing area at LaGuardia Airport for an hour Friday.

“We don’t believe it was a hazardous substance,” said Tom Wilkins, deputy federal security director at LaGuardia for the Transportation Security Administration, as the nation ratcheted up security measures against a possible terrorist attack in light of the war against Iraq.

Wilkins said the powder, which could not be conclusively identified, was found around a sports bottle and packed in the same plastic bag as the gas mask. He said the powder had probably been used for packing material on the new sports bottle, which was then placed in the plastic bag.

The luggage was taken for further testing by Port Authority police.

Asked if the war with Iraq had made baggage screeners unusually sensitive to suspicious substances, Wilkins said, “Our screeners are alert all the time for any possible threat.”

The bag belonged to a female passenger who had already left on Flight 721 to Dallas/Fort Worth when the substance was found, Wilkins said. She was questioned by law enforcement officials in Dallas upon her arrival.

The flight, which originated at LaGuardia, departed at 10:26 a.m. and arrived in Dallas at 1:43 p.m. Central time.

The American Airlines ticketing area at LaGuardia’s Terminal B was temporarily evacuated and cleaned with a diluted bleach solution, he said. Six baggage screeners were also taken to a room for decontamination but did not report any symptoms of illness, he said.

The powder, discovered at 12:15 p.m., set off an alarm that prompted baggage screeners to open the bag, Wilkins said. He would not specify exactly how the alarm was triggered, citing security reasons.

Port Authority police and a Hazmat squad immediately sealed the bag, Wilkins said.

He said it was common for passengers to depart on a flight even before their checked bags had been screened.

No flights were delayed as a result of the investigation, Wilkins said. The terminal was full of passengers waiting in ticket lines and having their bags screened.

Ricin, a deadly toxin made from the castor plant, was discovered in trace amounts in two flasks in a Paris rail station March 17, prompting concerns of a possible thwarted terror attack there.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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