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Nothing suspicious found in package at Port of Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: April 18, 2013 at 10:06 PM
TAMPA -

Dave and Sue Nowicki were at the front of the line Thursday at the Port of Tampa’s Terminal 3, ready to board for their cruise to Mexico.

They checked their luggage. They talked about snorkeling. Then port security told them and dozens of other passengers to evacuate the building.

“I knew when they asked us to move against a wall, then downstairs, then across the street, that something was up,” Dave Nowicki said.

Bomb-sniffing dogs had detected a suspicious odor coming from a pallet of boxes about to be loaded on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas cruise ship, authorities said.

The canines’ discovery at 10 a.m. Thursday prompted police to shut down Channelside Drive for about five hours, evacuate the ship’s crew, prevent passengers from boarding and call in bomb technicians and robots.

No explosive devices or materials were found, said Hillsborough County sheriff’s Col. Jim Previtera. The boxes carried only what they were supposed to: bottles of liquor.

The dogs noticed the odd scent during a routine screening of cargo and supplies, Previtera said.

A canine used by the cruise line zeroed in on the boxes of liquor on the dock; so did a second dog, a police K-9, Previtera said.

Both dogs gave a signal they had picked up a scent associated with explosives, not drugs, he said.

The bomb squad used a robot to check the pallet, and deputies took the pallet apart, but found nothing. Later, the sheriff’s office took several “items of concern’’ to its gun range and detonated them.

That process helped investigators find a small amount of magnesium nitrate hexahydrate on a piece of metal. Investigators said the chemical can be used as an ingredient in explosives but also is found in fireworks and fertilizers. The chemical is not explosive unless combined with other ingredients.

The sheriff’s office has informed the port authority of its findings and will forward the results of the chemical analysis to the Department of Homeland Security but plans no other action, the agency said.

Previtera said he doesn’t think authorities overreacted and that the Boston Marathon bombing didn’t color how bomb technicians were so deliberate in their search.

“Our response would have not been any different a month ago than now,” he said.

While authorities checked the pallets, hundreds of passengers milled about for hours along Channelside Drive.

Sharon Alvarez stood on the sidewalk across from the massive cruise ship, wondering when she and the 149 other members of her Brandon-based nonprofit, Chicks for Charity, were going to set sail for the four-day cruise to Cozumel.

“There’s a lot of craziness going on this week,” Alvarez said. “But I’m feeling better, because they’re sweeping the ship pretty well. It’s good they’re being cautious.”

The estimated 2,000 passengers waited for about four hours and weren’t allowed to board until 2:15 p.m.

Rampello Downtown Partnership School, at 802 E. Washington St., was placed on lockdown for as long as law enforcement investigated the pallets. Channelside Drive was shut down from Kennedy Boulevard to Cumberland Avenue during the investigation.

Nowicki, a tourist from Detroit, said the evacuation at Terminal 3 went smoothly.

“There was no sense of fear,” he said. “No one panicked.”

Betty Huth said even with the buzz of activity at the port and police cars zipping by with flashing lights, thoughts of what happened in Boston didn’t even cross her mind.

“I’m a pretty positive person,” Huth said. “I thought, ‘Oh well, a little inconvenience.’ I’d rather err on the side of caution.”

The Jewel of Seas, originally scheduled to depart at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, left Tampa at 6:30 p.m., port spokesman Andrew Fobes said. The ship is expected to dock at Cozumel at 10 a.m. today.

Alvarez said she also took the delay in stride.

“It’s more about the journey,” she said, “than the destination.”


Reporter Rob Shaw contributed to this report.

rreyes@tampatrib.com

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