Thursday, August 12, 2004
TV crew testing terror defense is caught
By Doug Moore
The St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch
Arlene Thomas grew suspicious when two men with out-of-state drivers licenses and a large wad of cash came into her Sauget helicopter hangar Wednesday morning and said they wanted to see St. Louis landmarks from the sky. The men, whom Thomas described to police as of “Middle Eastern descent,” were carrying a duffel bag and a backpack and drove up in a rental car with Texas license plates.
The signs pointed to terrorism – that’s exactly the impression the two men, an NBC News producer and cameraman, were trying to create.
Thomas called police, who searched the bags and the men and found a butane lighter, box cutter, two knives, duct tape, a powdery substance and a bottle filled with a clear liquid. The men also had maps of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis with major landmarks highlighted in yellow.
The two men, John Zito, an Italian from New York, and Tyrone Edwards, who police described as an Asian-Indian from Atlanta, were part of a story that NBC planned to air Thursday night about security at small airports that charter helicopters.
But after the plan fell through in Sauget, the incident at the airport was reduced to a brief mention at the end of the newscast.
Thomas and her husband, Clarke, run Fostaire Helicopters from St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia. The Fostaire hangar is situated on airport land in Sauget. It was that small town’s Police Department that arrived on the scene.
“They put out every red flag you could possibly put out,” said Sauget Police Chief Patrick Delaney, who handled the call with three of his officers before turning the case over to two members of the FBI’s terrorist task force. “We found out they worked for NBC News and were part of a group (of the network’s journalists) throughout the country doing a story to see how easy it would be to infiltrate helicopter hangars. Arlene Thomas was on her toes and knew something wasn’t right and should be looked into, and contacted us right away.”
Thomas said her suspicions began when one of the men called earlier in the day to say he wanted to take a “scenic helicopter ride” but had no interest in knowing how much it would cost.
Zito and Edwards were handcuffed and taken to the Sauget Police Department, where authorities found that the powdery substance was foot powder and the clear liquid was water. Four hours later, the NBC employees were released without charges but with the wrath of airport director Bob McDaniel.
“I’m absolutely outraged that NBC News is out here trying to create news rather than report news,” McDaniel said after meeting with members of the Transportation Security Administration. “This clearly scared the hell out of a lot of folks and wasted a lot of valuable resources, tying up emergency forces, and all of it was entirely unnecessary.
“If they wanted to learn about security, we’d have been happy to take them on a ride and show how it works,” McDaniel said. Thomas said an apology was in order from NBC to her and everyone who was involved.
McDaniel said he sent out a bulletin immediately to airport directors across the country, alerting them to NBC’s actions.
NBC defended its actions in an e-mail statement to the Post-Dispatch, saying that the employees did nothing wrong in determining the security measures at helicopter charter services.
“Nothing they did or carried was illegal,” said NBC spokesman Allison Gollust. “In Illinois, the system worked and … our reporting will include this part of the story, evidence that civilians like those in Illinois are making attempts to keep the skies safe.”
Editors Note: NBC can justify their actions all they want. The botton line here is that NBC tried to increase their ratings at the cost of GA. Pilots should not forget NBC’s actions.