Originally created 02/09/02

Salt Lake City airport shuts down during ceremonies



SALT LAKE CITY ‹ One of the first major races at the 2002 Winter Olympics was won by Rick Carnevale and his family and friends.

They made it by two minutes, which saved them at least four hours. Because of security surrounding the Opening Ceremonies, Salt Lake City International Airport was closed for four hours. Nothing flew in; nothing flew out.

The tense countdown for Carnevale began in Cincinnati. He knew he had a tight schedule. It got extremely tight when airline personnel discovered a malfunctioning windshield wiper, which delayed the flight.

³The pilot first came on the speaker system and said if they didn¹t get it fixed in 15 minutes, we probably wouldn¹t make it,² Carnevale said. ³Then, it was 10 minutes, then five.²

Finally, things were fixed and the plane was off but still there was no margin for error to get in before the 6 p.m. deadline (Mountain Standard Time).

³The captain or stewardess kept giving us updates and it wasn¹t looking too good at first,² he said. ³We just made it. It shut down as we got to the gate.²

That¹s why the Carnevale partly and many others on that flight were shaking their heads, wiping their brows and breathing sighs of relief at baggage claim. Friends and relatives of those passengers were anxiously waiting near the gate, not knowing whether the folks they were to pick up would make it until they received cell phone calls from the gate.

At 5:45 p.m., the arrival screen at the airport, full at hour before, turned sky blue. It had been determined which flights would make it in.

The airport was about to be turned into a ghost town. This was an airport that has been one of the world¹s liveliest the last few days, bringing in about 100,000 passengers a day.

³Just last night it was crazy around here,² said Rick Birtcher, an Olympic volunteer who works with transportation. ³One of the baggage claim carousels broke and some bags were diverted to another one over here. All the bags started coming on one carousel and they started piling up and jamming it.

³Someone had to get up on top of the carousel and start putting bags on the top level to keep everything from jamming. Meanwhile, most of the passingers were at the carousel on the far side because that¹s where the screen showed their bags would be. We had to shout, ŒHey guys, they¹re over here.²

Near Delta check-in, a group of about 20 security agents mingled about the screening machines. No one was checking in, so there were no bags to check.

³It gets slow here sometimes on week nights, but not this slow,² said Rick Welch, one of the security detail. ³Just the other night, there were 600 athletes in here about this time. Lately, we¹ve seen more police patrol dogs around here than people. They come around every couple of minutes.²

The airport shutdown caused outbound and inbound flights to be cancelled involving the following cities: Boise, Denver, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Jackson Hole, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Missoula, Oakland, Phoenix, El Paso, Hartford, Houston, Idaho Falls, Casper, Grand Junction, Reno, Tucson, Minneapolis, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, Spokane and St. Louis.

At 6 p.m., an annoucement came over the airport public address system that any ticketed passengers who were delayed were invited to watch the Opening Ceremonies on big screen TV in a nearby lounge area.

At 6:10 p.m., there was one last burst of hustle and bustle as a large group from four under-the-wire flights scrambled at baggage claim.

By 6:30 p.m., things got eerily quiet.

Whitney Houston music played in the background. Stores were closed. Airport personnel headed for the lounge to watch the ceremonies.

A few stragglers among the passengers collected their baggage and waited for transportation.

Four bags remained on a distant carousel.

And all the Delta security personnel were still at their posts at the check-in counter with nothing to do but enjoy each other¹s company.

³I guess we¹ll just stand here and wait,² Welch said. ³Our bosses haven¹t told us any different.²

(David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics).