A laptop flagged for additional screening in a checked bag at Iowa’s Des Moines International Airport came out negative on an explosive trace detection (ETD) swab, but TSA Officer Mike Amberg and his colleagues were suspicious.
“When I opened up the laptop, at first I thought it was a test,” Amberg said. “I definitely knew something was wrong. Screws were missing, so I knew it had been opened. It looked like something had been stuffed inside.”
“I was half expecting it to be a test [to make sure they were following proper procedures],” Lead TSA Officer Kevin Campion agreed. “I’d never seen something like that previously.”
Supervisory TSA Officer Mike Brennan performed a second ETD test, and again, the bag was cleared.
“You could see the stress from within the laptop,” said Brennan. “I swabbed it and stuck the swab inside a bit. Just because an item clears the ETD, it doesn’t mean the item itself is cleared [for travel].”
So, Brennan contacted TSA Explosives Specialist Mike Credidio.
Everyone agreed the laptop did not appear normal. The batteries were expanding, which caused the laptop case to bulge.
Credidio, who gave a closer inspection of the laptop based on the anomaly, determined the laptop was overheating. He removed the back of the laptop and saw the lithium ion batteries.
“It had no obvious signs of explosives or signs of smuggling,” Credidio recalled, “but the batteries were bulging so badly that the case was starting to crack. The passenger said he recently replaced the batteries, but something didn’t work out right.”
Des Moines TSA Manager Bill Eid also said he saw “a lot of swelling” of the unit.
“I could see crystals spilling out of the battery,” said Eid, who spoke with a Southwest Airlines representative. “She said she did not want it on her plane. I mean, you don’t want to be 30,000 feet in the air and have smoke coming from your cargo hold.”
The passenger was notified the laptop was being removed from his bag and arranged for a family member to pick it up.
“This was an outstanding job by [Officers] Mike Amberg, Kevin Campion, Mike Brennan, [TSA Manager] Bill Eid and [TSA Explosives Specialist] Mike Credidio,” said Iowa TSA Assistant Federal Security Director-Screening Nic Menke. “This could have easily resulted in a major in-flight issue had this laptop been allowed to continue and been placed in the cargo hold of the aircraft. Although the ETD did not alarm, these team members recognized something was not right and engaged their network. It is a great example of these team members being committed to our mission, being focused during the screening process and trusting their experience knowing something was not right.”