ROCKFORD — A bottle packed in a passenger's bag on a Las Vegas-bound plane prompted the evacuation of Chicago Rockford International Airport's terminal Saturday afternoon because the item looked "suspicious," officials said.
The potential bomb threat was reported at 12:15 p.m. while passengers were boarding the 1 p.m. Allegiant flight, said Zack Oakley, deputy director of operations and planning for the airport. Transportation Security Administration agents were screening passenger bags in a bag room when they noticed a suspicious item in one of the bags.
"The way the bottle was packed when it went through screening," Oakley said, "met the criteria" for an evacuation order.
TSA agents followed protocol by issuing an evacuation order, Oakley said, and the terminal was evacuated by 12:30 p.m. They determined to whom the bag belonged and when Rockford police arrived, officers interviewed those passengers to find out which items in the bag "could be of concern," Oakley said.
Members of the Rockford bomb squad were brought in at 1:30 p.m. They determined the bag simply contained a bottle.
Officials gave the all-clear at 1:40 p.m. and passengers were brought back to the terminal at 2 p.m., where the screening process began again. Oakley said he didn't know what the bottle contained, if anything.
Passenger Bryant Gill, 33, of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, said he was headed to Las Vegas with his wife, Meg, for the weekend when the terminal was evacuated. About a dozen people already were on the plane.
"We had just stood up to walk toward boarding and the gal at the door there said TSA wants everyone to evacuate," said Gill, who manages a livestock stockyard.
Gill, who was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt but no coat, said he and other passengers were directed to the parking lot, so he and his wife sat in their car to stay warm. Employees then told vehicle occupants that the parking lot wasn't safe, and they would have to wait across the street.
Two buses arrived, but they could accommodate only half to two-thirds of the evacuees, Gill said. About 40 people remained outside in the cold, he said. A group, including Gill, walked to a nearby gas station to stay warm.
The lack of warm shelter for evacuees was frustrating.
"I don't blame anybody, but how can not having any place warm for people to be not be part of the evacuation plan?" Gill said.
Also frustrating was not knowing what was going on.
"When you know what's going on you don't have a thousand things going through your mind. At the end of the day, I'm very happy that it was a bottle," Gill said.
The airline established a new departure time of 3:43 p.m., but the plane did not take off until after 7 p.m.
Airport officials said the additional delay was an Allegiant issue.
Kristen Zambo: 815-987-1339; email@example.com; @KristenZambo