Replica Grenade Buckle Delays Flights in Florida

Apr. 26--MANATEE -- A male passenger's explosive sense of fashion delayed three flights at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport on Tuesday and attracted the attention of the local bomb squad.

An explosive baggage detection system at 6:05 a.m. discovered what looked like a hand grenade in the checked baggage of an SRQ passenger.

A transportation security officer notified airport police and the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department. A safety zone was established around the machine containing the suspicious item, including the check-in area, according to Transportation Security Administration spokesman Christopher White.

The bag carrying the menacing item was placed into a suspect baggage containment vessel.

It was the first time the airport's containment vessel has been used, the product of a $30,000-plus grant awarded last year to SRQ and Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, said Airport Police Chief Anthony Marone.

The large rectangular container can be operated from as far as 50 feet away with connecting cables and is used to move suspicious items to a safe place until a bomb squad arrives.

In this case, the Sarasota County Bomb Squad responded at 6:30 a.m. Ten minutes later, the area returned to normal when the item's true nature was discovered: It was a belt buckle with a life-sized hand grenade replica cut in half.

The owner voluntarily surrendered the belt buckle to officials because replica weapons cannot be taken onboard airplanes, even if non-lethal and affixed to someone's belt.

"Replica weapons have to be taken seriously, particularly replica explosives because explosives are the No. 1 threat to aviation," White said.

More than 18,000 transportation security officers last year received enhanced explosive identification training, White said.

In 2005, officers discovered 11,714 replica weapons at the nation's airports.

"Toy guns are relatively common," White said.

Of almost 16 million prohibited items found by TSA officers, about half were lighters, White said. TSA officers have even found hand grenade-shaped cigarette lighters, a double faux pas.

Janet Hays has been selling pewter hand grenade belt buckles for about five years at Belt Buckles of Estes in Estes Park, Colo.

"I would say they're in our top 20 percent as far as the buckles that we sell," she said. "They're a good seller."

She estimates her $16.95 pewter hand grenade buckles are roughly the same size of a real hand grenade but are cut in half and hollowed out. Buyers are mostly young, teenagers through their 20s.

"I have had people say they had trouble getting through security and had to take them off," she said.

<<Bradenton Herald, The (FL) (KRT) -- 04/27/06>>