~ Marechaussees tend to irate KLM passengers ~
AIRPORT--A bomb scare caused a mass evacuation of the terminal building at SXM Princess Juliana International Airport on Saturday, disrupting normal operations for close to four hours and resulting in numerous incoming flights being diverted to other airports.
Roads leading to SXM Airport from the Simpson Bay causeway roundabout and from the Maho roundabout were closed in connection with the threat.
A phone call received at the police central dispatch at 9:35am Saturday indicated a bomb was on board the KLM aircraft that had been parked overnight due to technical issues that resulted in the cancellation of that flight on Friday.
Police then alerted SXM Airport to the threat and in turn airport management implemented their evacuation procedure.
The airport's Managing Director Regina LaBega declined to comment, but indicated that once the evacuation had been completed emergency procedures had been turned over to Government and the police.
Passengers, many bringing their luggage with them from waiting to check in, were shepherded out of the terminal building by airport staff to the parking areas on the Winair office side of the complex.
Despite practically no shade, hundreds of passengers waited quietly in the hot sun for close to three hours before the "all clear" was given. Most accepted the inconvenience and there appeared to be few complaints or medical issues. Airport staff handed out bottles of water and periodically kept passengers updated with information, as well as enquiring whether anyone required medical attention.
"What can you do? It's not the airport's fault," commented one passenger.
But for some passengers not all had gone smoothly.
"This is ridiculous," fumed one passenger. "We've been sent outside, but no one has given any updates. We're standing here in the sun, there's no shade and we've not been given any water. KLM has sorted out water for its passengers, but no one else has water."
Another questioned the airport's evacuation procedure when all passengers were waiting at first directly outside the terminal entrances before being moved to a safer distance farther away from the terminal.
One airport employee reported a "chaotic" situation outside the airport: "There are hundreds of people here. No one seems to know what to do. It took over an hour for the police to arrive."
"No one gave us any news," said another man. "I don't know what they're going to do. We don't have a bomb disposal expert on the island. Also, this flight arrived yesterday so there won't have been any suitcases on board."
The same man also stated that if there were indeed a bomb, it wouldn't be very effective to have people waiting right outside the terminal "as we'll still be blown up." The man himself still preferred to wait outside the terminal building.
Passengers Karen and Mark were all checked in and upstairs in the departure lounge waiting for their JetBlue flight to Boston when they were told to evacuate the building at 11:00am.
"An alarm went off in the building. At first we thought somebody set if off by mistake, but when it continued we knew something was up," said Karen. "Everybody evacuated in an orderly way and at first we thought it must be a drill, but then soon realised it was the real thing. The bad part is that our luggage was already checked in and I assume they will have to put everybody through the whole security procedures again. But it's better to be out here and safe."
Another woman said: "There's nothing you can do about it, but I've had a wonderful time here. This is the first time I've been evacuated because of a bomb scare, but I feel safe and protected out here."
One couple hoping to go to Los Angeles was at Gate Four and about to board their plane when the evacuation order came.
"This was unfortunate timing. We were actually keen to leave. It was our first time on the island for a wedding anniversary, but we had a disappointing week as construction work was going on at our hotel every day," they said.
The first to be allowed back into the terminal building around 1:15pm were airport employees, airline staff, immigration and Customs, etc. They were followed half an hour later by the passengers.
Evidently most of the evacuated passengers came from the departure lounge and a massive queue formed inside the terminal as they waited to go up the escalator to clear security procedures again.
Police spokesperson Inspector Ricardo Henson held a short press conference in the company of SXM Airport public relations spokesperson Kalifa Hickinson once the "all clear" had been given.
"There was one call made by the person, a male voice, and the dispatcher tried to question the caller, but he hung up immediately after saying, 'This is serious, it's not a joke,'" said Henson. "Given the seriousness of the situation, a suspected bomb on the KLM plane, all police authorities were advised and our actions were scaled up. These types of calls are very serious and we have to act on them. We realised also that the KLM flight did not depart on Friday, adding to the gravity of the threat."
Henson declined to comment on the caller's voice, whether it was that of a local Antillean or foreigner or whether the call could be traced.
"At this time the call is not being treated as a hoax until the investigation is completed," he said.
Hickinson and Henson both assured that the airport and police had been adequately prepared for such an incident.
"When this type of thing happens it causes confusion in the sense that traffic has to be deviated, traffic jams build up, but thank God no one was injured, everybody is safe, and we are getting the operation back to normal," Henson stated. "The entire building was searched and the aircraft was thoroughly searched internally and externally."
Hickinson confirmed that incoming planes had been diverted to other airports during the scare, but did not have details of what flights or how many.
However, it was known that InselAir had been diverted to Antigua and then had flown on to Haiti before arriving in St. Maarten at 7:00pm. Some Winair flights landed at Grand Case, while flights from the United States, including JetBlue and American Airlines, were diverted to San Juan. A LIAT aircraft returned to Antigua.
This left airport staff to deal with the aftermath of the incident. Some flights had to be cancelled because of the crew's rest time regulations. Other flights had refuelled at the airports to which they had been diverted and then still made their way to St. Maarten, with many aircraft arriving at the same time.
One airport employee estimated the incident would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I hope a review will take place and lessons learnt for the future. I feel the response to this incident could have been handled a lot better," the employee said.
Meanwhile, the Dutch Royal Marechaussees on Saturday evening attempted to calm irate KLM passengers stranded since Friday and Saturday after both of those flights were cancelled following a technical fault in the plane's cockpit instrumentation system, sources revealed.
Mechanics worked on the problem, but the pilot of the troubled plane reportedly was not satisfied with the sound of the engines on Saturday and refused to take off, causing more grief for weary passengers trying to leave.
According to a press release sent out late Sunday evening, Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunications (TEATT) Ted Richardson was alerted about the situation on Saturday. "Before visiting the airport just after midnight, the Minister contacted the KLM country representative, the Civil Aviation Authority and SXM Airport Management with respect to the situation," the release stated.
"After assessing the situation, the Minister instructed that the stranded passengers should stay at the terminal building until the morning. In collaboration with the airport management, KLM crew, Minister Richardson ensured that the unfortunate travellers are attended in providing them water, food and blankets. The police, the Customs and the airport security, who all were present at the terminal, were assigned to ensure the passengers' safety and the safety of the premises," the release added.
Sunday's scheduled flight arrived and took off normally and a second KLM aircraft arrived late in the afternoon to pick up more stranded passengers. The original plane is still grounded.
Unconfirmed reports were received of passengers becoming irate at the way they were being treated by security and KLM ground handlers after the second cancellation. KLM reportedly paid for 20 rooms at The Westin St. Maarten Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, but some 40-50 passengers were forced to sleep at the terminal building as no other accommodation could be found to put them up.
Compounding an already tense situation, a theory arose that the bomb threat had come from one of the irate passengers. None of these reports could be verified by KLM last night.