Scare at Miami port ‘unfounded’


MIAMI – What started as a potential terrorist plot at Miami-Dade’s seaport Sunday morning quickly flubbed into a sobering reminder of the cable TV-hyped, post-Sept. 11 state of fear.

Initially, the story line sounded startling:

Officers stopped a Middle Eastern man driving an 18-wheel tractor trailer with mysterious cargo. Two men, the reports went, were discovered hiding in the trailer.

The illegal men had tried to “slip” past security and the port was shut down, media outlets reported.

The truth, however, emerged far less threatening – the men were not terrorists and were only hauling electrical auto parts.

Ultimately, the scare was blamed on miscommunication and unfounded reports.

“We live in a different world these days, and we have to take these situations very seriously,” said James Maes, assistant seaport director for safety and security.

The story unfolded on a brilliant Sunday morning as hordes of passengers flocked to the looming cruise ships at one of the nation’s busiest ports.

An Iraqi-born trucker from Michigan appeared about 8 a.m. at the port’s main entrance without proper identification, police said.

The 20-year-old driver told them he was alone – at least, that’s what the security guard understood – and the truck was rerouted to another checkpoint.

“I can’t tell you how this miscommunication occurred, but apparently there was some kind of miscommunication – apparently there was a language barrier,” said Miami-Dade Lt. Nancy Goldberg, a spokeswoman.

State law dictates anyone without the proper port ID be rerouted to another checkpoint. There, Miami-Dade officers spotted the two other men, ages 28 and 29, one of whom had no ID.

The alarm was sounded.

“Based on these series of events and in an abundance of caution, we initiated security protocols that included calling in our Southeast Regional Security Task Force,” Goldberg said.

That includes the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

FBI agents questioned the men.

County and federal authorities used a gamma ray ID device to examine the blue 40-foot container, which contained 22 pallets inside.

Miami-Dade’s bomb squad responded. A machine called a radio isotope device, known as RID, was used to rid any notions of radioactivity inside.

“We X-rayed the container and the contents consisted of what was manifested on the shipping documents,” said Jose Ramirez, CBP’s port director.

The cargo indeed matched its manifest: auto wiring harnesses bound for Latin America. The devices are used to help rewire electronic equipment such as stereos in cars.

By 5:15 p.m., authorities stood in front of local and national reporters to stress that despite the false alarm, security procedures unfolded perfectly.

Detectives from Miami-Dade’s homeland security bureau will determine if the men will face any criminal or administrative charges.

The identities of the men, two Iraqis and one Lebanese, were not released on Sunday. Their employer was unknown.

All three were legal U.S. residents – none on any terrorist watch lists.

At least two of the three had a criminal history, according to several law enforcement sources.

By early afternoon, reporters had flocked to a staging area near where passengers embark on cruise ships.

For some reporters, the long lines seemed an indication of ramped-up security – it was, in fact, normal Sunday traffic.

In the ensuing hours, various authorities and sources gave differing details, adding to the confusion. Soon, rumors had made their way into news reports online and on television.

Some outlets reported the port had closed. Others, including The Miami Herald’s Web site, reported the discovery of two 55-gallon containers, a subtle indication of dangerous chemicals.

“There was some confusion,” said Goldberg.

In an era after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such scares are not unprecedented.

In September 2002, three medical students who made off-color remarks about Sept. 11 at a Georgia restaurant sparked a similar law enforcement response and media frenzy after blowing through a toll booth on Alligator Alley.

On Sunday, authorities – as they did then – reminded reporters that the incident proved a valuable drill.

“The security checks and balances at the port worked well and effectively. What in the past would have taken us three to four days had taken the federal, local and state authorities a few hours to investigate and resolve,” Goldberg said.

By the time of the much-delayed press conference, the mood had lightened – especially when a cruise ship horn and one from a passing car, playing the squeal of a horse, interrupted the speakers.