Update 11/05/01 - To add to this story by the Chicago Tribune, local Chicago media outlets are reporting this morning that the seven screeners have been fired, and that the suspect is again in FBI custody as they try to determine any link between him and the two men arrested in Texas Sept. 12 on a San Antonio-bound Amtrak train.
7 O'Hare screeners suspended over lapse
By Tom McCann and Sean D. Hamill
Tribune staff reporters
Published November 5, 2001
"Seven O'Hare International Airport security workers were suspended Sunday and are likely to be fired after they let a Chicago man pass through a security checkpoint with seven knives, a stun gun and a can of mace in his carry-on luggage, according to city aviation officials.
The man was eventually stopped and the weapons were found before he was able to board a plane Saturday. But the incident, coming two days after the House rejected a plan adopted by the Senate to federalize airport security workers, is certain to stoke the debate over how to safeguard the nation's airports.
Subash Gurung, 27, a native of Nepal, was arrested about 7:30 p.m. Saturday while waiting to board a United Airlines flight to Omaha, said Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Monique Bond. Airport police said Gurung bought a one-way ticket.
Airline employees discovered the weapons during a final bag check at the gate, Bond said, part of new procedures that several airlines have adopted since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But that was after two folding knives were discovered in Gurung's pocket when he walked through a security checkpoint metal detector, police said. Bond said the knives were confiscated and police were summoned, but Gurung was allowed to continue to his gate.
Meanwhile, his bag went through an X-ray machine, but the security staff did not notice the knives or other weapons, Bond said. A search of the bag wasn't conducted even after the two knives were found, she said.
Bond would not say what led to the later search of Gurung's bag.
"Something obviously went seriously wrong here, and we're trying to find out if it's the employees' fault or the security company's fault," Bond said. "If weapons were confiscated, he should never have been let through security."
The Federal Aviation Administration and Chicago Department of Aviation have both launched investigations into the incident and will consider whether the employees should be fired and whether United should pay a fine.
The suspended workers were all employees of Atlanta-based Argenbright Security Inc., the company that runs United's screening operations at O'Hare. Three veteran employees were working the checkpoint alongside three trainees, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. The employees' supervisor was also suspended.
"We commend all our employees who acted to apprehend this man," said United spokesman Joe Hopkins. "They did an excellent job."
Despite heightened airport security in the aftermath of the attacks, the lapse on Saturday wasn't the first. Last month, a passenger on a Southwest Airlines flight accidentally brought a gun aboard a plane in his briefcase.
Lawmakers agree steps are still needed to improve baggage and passenger screening, but the House and Senate remain divided about how best to achieve that goal.
The Senate has approved a measure that would make security screeners federal employees. The House version adopted Thursday increased federal oversight of the 28,000 screeners, but stopped short of federalizing them.
"If the system can't detect a knife and a stun gun in luggage, then you have to ask yourself whether the people are doing their job right," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who supports the Senate bill that gives the Justice Department responsibility for airport security.
"I think the technology works, but you can't pay someone minimum wage and ask them to act as a law enforcement officer on the front line fighting terrorism," said Durbin at a news conference Sunday, in which he also proposed legislation to allow federal agencies to share classified information with local police.
Gurung was charged with three misdemeanor counts of unlawful use of a weapon, attempting to board an aircraft with dangerous weapons and carrying dangerous weapons. A spokeswoman for the Cook County state's attorney's office said the case was still being evaluated and more serious charges could be brought.
Gurung was released early Sunday on $1,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 19. He was questioned by the FBI, who turned him over to Chicago police.
Gurung could not be reached for comment Sunday. In comments to WLS-Ch. 7, he said "It just happened out of accident, in a hurry."
He said he has worked in a warehouse but was presently unemployed.
Gurung recently moved back to Chicago with his brother, Sushil, from Minnesota, said Adam Colfax, superintendent for the apartment building in the 5700 block of North Kenmore Avenue where the Gurung brothers lived until a year ago.
Colfax said Gurung previously lived in an apartment at 1025 W. Hollywood Ave., where Ayub Ali Khan once lived. Khan has been detained by authorities as a material witness in the Sept. 11 attacks but it is unclear whether he knew Gurung."
Updates to follow as they develop.