A scientist detained at Miami International Airport because of a suspicious item in his luggage had once been charged with illegally transporting bubonic plague, a senior law enforcement official said.
No dangerous material was found on Thomas Butler, 70, after he was detained Thursday night, the official told The Associated Press on Friday. Butler had been acquitted of the charges of transporting the potentially deadly germ in 2003.
Butler cooperated fully after he arrived on a flight from the Middle East, said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
Most of the airport was shut down Thursday night after officials found a suspicious metal canister in Butler’s luggage. A Homeland Security spokesman said at first it looked like a pipe bomb, but no explosives were found.
The senior law enforcement official told the AP that a Transportation Safety Administration inspector noticed an odd container as Butler was going through Customs after arriving on a flight from the Middle East, where he had been teaching at a Saudi Arabian university.
Those facts caused the inspector to run Butler’s name in a database and discover that he had been tried on the plague charges in 2003.
Officials decided to evacuate the airport and detain Butler.
A police bomb squad spent hours scouring the airport. Passengers had to be evacuated from four of the airport’s six concourses and airport roadways were closed down, police and airport officials said. They described the shutdown of the concourses as a public safety precaution.
Passengers, workers and others were allowed back in just as the airport was expecting the first of 1,500 passengers on flights between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. alone — and more thereafter.
“Everything’s back to normal,” airport spokesman Greg Chin told The Associated Press.
The Miami International Airport Hotel, which is located near the airport’s international terminal, was also evacuated, Chin said.
The Transportation Security Administration at first declined to identify the passenger, saying in a terse statement that the screener spotted something suspicious in a checked back at about 9 p.m. Thursday.
Chin said between 100 and 200 passengers were forced to leave.
“I’m still not sure how many flights came in during this time, but any that did were relocated to the eastern or western ends of the airport,” Chin said, adding parts of Concourses D and J remained open to flights while the evacuation order was in effect for remaining areas.
He said the Miami airport is “one of the most stringent” to get through because he has to be fingerprinted and have his picture taken at customs.
“Traveling right now is a pain but you have to do it,” said Lewis, 39, who was flying with his two small children after a trip to North Carolina and Disney World. “I don’t get overly worried that people will do stupid things.”