Man's bomb comment closes Alaska airport, lands him in jail

The Anchorage Daily NewsOctober 15, 2012 

— Peter Friesema, a Colorado hockey referee who officiated a UAA tournament over the weekend, was checking in at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport with a traveling companion late Saturday night. He pointed out that the Alaska Airlines ticket agent had put his sticker on his friend's luggage.

The agent, Courtney Grant, said it didn't matter since they were both traveling to the same destination. At any rate, the bags were already headed along the conveyor belt to the sorting area below.

What Friesema said next temporarily shut down the airport, forced hundreds of passengers into the cold night air, caused many to miss connections, and landed him in jail.

"But my friend's bag has a bomb in it," the agent remembers him saying, according to a charging document. He recounted it to authorities slightly differently, more to the effect of "what if my friend's bag has a bomb in it?"

Either way, his comment was "perhaps an effort to be funny or flirtacious," Assistant District Attorney Adam Alexander said Sunday before Friesema made a court appearance.

Friesema, 44, may have been joking but no one in the airline business is amused by off-hand comments about bombs.

"He did something that in this day and age a teenager would know better than to do," said John Parrott, the Anchorage airport manager. The result was hundreds of people inconvenienced and a costly delay of flights, he said.

Just after midnight, early on Sunday morning, officials locked down the main terminal at the international airport, with airport police telling people as they evacuated the building that there had been a "security breach."

The airport reopened around 3 a.m. when authorities decided the bomb threat was not really a threat.

Some passengers complained that the evacuation appeared haphazard with little information provided over the public address system. No one was explaining what went wrong or how serious the breach was. People got cold waiting outside.

Parrott said the priority was evacuating passengers and employees safely, and that no single instruction would have worked for everyone in the building. It wouldn't have made sense to take time to explain things in the middle of an incident still unfolding, he said. The entire terminal had to be emptied because the questioned luggage was in center of the downstairs area, and the safety perimeter covered much of the building.

Chilled passengers, many of them in summer clothes from their warm departure cities, huddled in doorways to keep warm.

Shortly after 1 a.m., shuttle buses began taking them to the North Terminal for a respite from the cold, though the shuttles could only carry a dozen people at a time and there were hundreds who had been evacuated. People also could take refuge in the rental car garage, Parrott said.

Friesema had already cleared security; police found him in the Alaska Airlines boardroom. The FBI interviewed him, as well as the ticket agent, and determined the threat was not credible, Parrott said. The bag had already been screened, and was found and removed. An explosive disposal team did not have to dismantle its contents, Parrott said.

CAN'T LEAVE ALASKA

Friesema is charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. The FBI and state authorities are still evaluating whether to bring additional charges. Airport police had referred charges of both disorderly conduct and making terroristic threats, a felony, which can apply if a person makes a false report that causes evacuation of a building or public place.

At jail court on Sunday afternoon, Friesema wore a yellow jailhouse uniform. His hands were shackled in front of him. His silvery hair was neatly cut. He looked worried and spoke so softly the magistrate, Catherine Rogers, had to ask him to speak up.

He pleaded not guilty. He said he makes about $50,000 a year.

Rogers ordered him to stay in Alaska and lowered his bail from $5,000 -- set when the terroristic threat charge was pending -- to $1,500.

"I find you to be a flight risk," Rogers said, alluding to the fact Friesema lives in Colorado. "You need to have this resolved."

She set his next court hearing for Nov. 26.

"If I have to stay in Alaska, I'll lose my job, my career," he told her.

Friesema didn't say in court what he does for a living, but he's listed on the website of the Central Hockey League, a mid-level professional league, as a referee. He's also a referee with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and has been working games in Alaska for years. On Friday and Saturday, he officiated at UAA's Kendall Hockey Classic at Sullivan Arena. He also appears to have aviation experience. He says on his Facebook page that he went to flight school in Florida and studied aviation management, as well as criminal justice, at Minnesota State University.

Alexander, the prosecutor, said he would not oppose eliminating the requirement that the defendant stay in Alaska, as long as he agreed not to fight being brought back here to face the charge.

But Rogers said she wasn't comfortable with that.

"I know that the airport was shut down for this. It was a huge expense to the state of Alaska and the people that were here," she said.

Friesema can talk with an attorney about the matter, she said.

SITUATION EARLY SUNDAY

Maybe a half dozen flights involving hundreds of passengers were affected, Parrott said. Some planes arriving early Sunday pulled up at the North Terminal or their passengers were directed to go there, and other planes scheduled to take off around 1 a.m. departed late, causing passengers to miss connections in other cities. A number of airlines were affected, including Alaska, Delta, U.S. Airways and United, he said.

A police roadblock was placed across International Airport Road, preventing people from getting to the terminal to pick up arriving passengers. A long line of traffic stretched east International.

Typical was the case of passengers arriving on Alaska Airlines flight 143 from Portland. It landed early, a few minutes after midnight, but as the plane pulled toward the gate, it came up short. The pilot came on the intercom and told passengers that "some kind of airport drama" was under way and pointed to the flashing lights of police cars on the tarmac.

After several minutes, the plane did park at the gate. A policeman and a gate agent entered the plane. The airport cop barked into the cabin, telling passengers they'd have to quickly leave. They wouldn't be allowed to use the restroom at the airport and couldn't pick up their bags, he said.

While the officer watched from the gate to make sure no one disobeyed, the passengers hustled behind the agent through a side door that led to the ticketing area and then out to the sidewalk, where hundreds of evacuees were already mingling -- and shivering. The crowd included passengers, airline employees and concession workers.

Angelique Mendez-Mena was among them, having arrived on the flight from Portland. She didn't know whether to wait for an all-clear so she could pick up her baggage, or to just walk home.

"If nothing happens in the next hour, I only live about 20 minutes away. I'll just toodle along, or find a taxi," she said. "At least I remembered my gloves."

Other passengers walked down the ice-slicked road ramps to cars they left parked in the airport garage or lot, or to meet a ride that made it through before the cordon was set up.

The airport is reviewing its procedures in light of the incident, Parrott said.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service