Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Powder that
canceled Maui
flight was safe,
tests show

The analysis took 3 days
because Valley Isle firefighters
lacked equipment

By Gary T. Kubota

WAILUKU >> State health officials said today that preliminary tests show a white powdery substance that delayed a Maui-San Jose flight Saturday was harmless and did not contain anthrax.

But the testing procedure itself took more than three days, compared to a 30-minute testing period for a similar incident on a flight between Dallas and Honolulu yesterday.

The Dallas to Honolulu flight, previously described incorrectly as a Honolulu to Dallas flight, was forced to land in Los Angeles yesterday but was delayed for only about an hour before resuming its flight. The plane arrived in Honolulu last night at 6:04 p.m.

Los Angeles firefighters using a mobile hazardous materials unit were able to determine the substance was harmless within less than 30 minutes and without evacuating the jet carrying 224 passengers, a fire spokesman said.

American Airlines spokesman John Hotard said the substance found in a bathroom turned out to be facial tissue residue.

In the Saturday night incident on Maui, where the test equipment is unavailable, more than 100 passengers were forced to extend their stay a day on the Valley Isle, after a white powdery substance was found on the floor of the cabin.

An American Airlines hazardous materials team arrived on Maui to decontaminate the jet and it was flown without passengers to Los Angeles on Sunday.

"Because we could not confirm at the time what the substance was, we erred on the side of caution," said Hotard.

Unlike the fire departments in Honolulu and Los Angeles, Maui firefighters do not have field-testing equipment to conduct preliminary tests for harmful viruses and bacteria, including anthrax.

Maui firefighters are trained only to contain a suspected harmful substance and rely upon state health officials in Honolulu to determine whether it's dangerous.

State health spokeswoman Janice Okubo said the arrival of the container holding the white powder was delayed because it had to be carried aboard a cargo flight without passengers, and the earliest cargo flight arrived on Oahu at 2:30 p.m. yesterday.

She said the health department had not determined what the power was.

Maui Fire Chief Clayton Ishikawa said that to his knowledge, Saturday's incident was the first time on Maui that a flight had been canceled because of fear a substance might contain anthrax.

Ishikawa said the department followed established procedure in putting the powder into a sealed container in a state health storage area for pickup.

Under the procedure, state health officials usually pick up the container on the first working day to send it to Honolulu, Maui police said.

Ishikawa said he was unaware to what degree field-testing equipment used by the Honolulu and Los Angeles fire departments was effective in detecting harmful substances such as anthrax.

Since October, the Honolulu Fire Department has bought field-testing equipment to detect harmful substances, including anthrax.

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