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Inactive hand grenades in luggage led to shutdown at Victoria airport

A Saanich Peninsula man was arrested and has an upcoming court date, RCMP say.

A Saanich Peninsula resident has been released from police custody with an upcoming court date after inactive hand grenades were discovered in his luggage at Victoria International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, resulting in cancellation of multiple flights over a six-hour period.

After the suspicious contents were discovered by airport security’s X-ray machines scanning a bag shortly after 1:30 p.m., security called in Sidney-North Saanich RCMP, who took the bag’s owner into custody and closed off a portion of the airport.

Members of the Lower Mainland-based RCMP explosive disposal unit performed a virtual assessment and determined the bag contained “inert military surplus explosives.” The explosives team recommended the radius that needed to be cleared and locked down to keep travellers safe.

But shortly after, a second bag belonging to the man was located. Since police were unable to determine the contents of that bag without specialized experts at the scene, the departures wing was cleared and passengers moved farther away from the man’s luggage.

RCMP said the owner of the luggage is not known to police and has “no significant criminal history.” The man was travelling out of the country.

No threats were made, said Cpl. Andres Sanchez, spokesperson for Sidney-North Saanich RCMP, adding: “I can’t speak to why this individual thought that was an appropriate thing to bring on an airplane.”

Asked why the RCMP relies on an explosives team based on the Lower Mainland to deal with Island calls, Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, RCMP senior media relations officer, said the explosive disposal unit requires specialized skills and tools, so it’s cheaper to simply deploy teams to areas where they’re required.

The explosives team will travel to calls by plane, helicopter or ferry, depending on the nature of the threat, Shoihet said. But the first step is always a consultation, where the explosives team connects virtually with officers on the ground to gather as much information as possible and assess the level of risk.

That’s what happened at the airport on Tuesday, Shoihet said.

“[RCMP] were able to contain that scene and wait for the RCMP explosives unit to get there,” she said. “They will lock down the scene based on directions from the [explosives disposal unit].”

About 20 scheduled flights were cancelled between 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

“As always, the security and safety of our staff and visitors is our priority,” said Geoff Dickson, chief executive of the Victoria Airport Authority.

Parts of the air terminal were closed after police became concerned about the safety of staff and passengers, he said.

The airport resumed regular operations on Tuesday evening.

Travellers were advised to check with their airline or to go to the airport’s website for updates on flights.

The cancellations had passengers scrambling to find alternative transportation. Helijet, which operates regular flights from Victoria airport to Vancouver Harbour, Nanaimo Harbour and Vancouver International Airport, received a flurry of calls to book flights, said spokesman Rick Hill.

Some airlines were able to rebook travellers on Wednesday flights, but other people were facing longer waits.

Cathy, who didn’t want to give her last name, was trying to head home to Toronto. “We’re stranded, our rebooking is not until Saturday,” she said. “Or else we have to go to the ferry and go to Vancouver.”

She was already checked in when she heard that the flights had been cancelled. “Everyone was asked to take their bags and go, so here we are.”

Carolyn and Erwin Beitel were still hoping to make it to Calgary Tuesday night en route to Regina and Emerald Lake.

“We heard different things, that Trudeau was in town and that’s why all the security was there,” Erwin Beitel said. “And then we heard something about luggage some place.”

Carolyn Beitel said she saw a man being arrested.

“I was looking at my flights and I wasn’t paying attention, then all of the sudden I heard this yelling,” she said.

“They had this man turned around and they were trying to put handcuffs on him. The policeman was yelling at him to put his hands back. He put the cuffs on him.”

Travellers remained in the terminal, though some areas were closed off.

Greg Pierce, who lives in Calgary, said he found it “peculiar” he couldn’t walk from where he dropped his bag off to security. The area was cordoned off and he had to walk around outside instead.

“I was sitting there waiting for my flight doing some work on my laptop and I looked out and noticed there was no plane,” he said. “It was about five minutes before we were supposed to leave. They called and said it was cancelled.”

Pierce said he got an email saying he’s been booked on a Wednesday flight, “which is not terrible. I’m lucky I have a flexible job and could even work from a hotel if I need to.”

“I’m going to miss 12 hours of my life because they were being fairly cautious, which I don’t think is a big deal — but I’m fairly privileged.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

ngrossman@timescolonist.com