Valentijn Van Driessen and his traveling companion, Federico Balbo, learned about a bomb plot directed against Mid-Continent Airport on Friday afternoon while standing in line at the airport’s security checkpoint inside the terminal.
Both were preparing to fly home to Belgium after working in Wichita for two weeks when they were informed by the news media that a Wichita man had planned to blow up the terminal – a plot that was foiled by law enforcement officials about seven hours before their flight.
But that didn’t keep them from thinking: What if?
“If you stop and think about it, it could have happened while we were sitting, waiting for our plane,” Van Driessen said. “And then the bomb (could have) went off.”
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“Yes,” Balbo agreed. “It could have happened to anyone.”
Travelers at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport on Friday afternoon seemed mostly unaware that earlier in the day a 58-year-old man – Wichitan Terry Lee Loewen – allegedly had driven to a tarmac security gate in a vehicle loaded with inert explosives and used his badge to try to gain access inside. Most also didn’t know that law enforcement was waiting there to place him under arrest at 5:40 a.m., disrupting a plan that federal prosecutors say was months in the making.
Children played while their parents waited in line to check in at the airport around 2 p.m. Friday. Couples read books. Waiting passengers shuffled through their luggage. Laughter spilled into the lobby from the airport’s restaurants and lounge areas.
Little, except an increased presence of law enforcement officers and news media, passengers said, tipped them off to a potential problem.
“When we drove up we saw the news vans out there and all of the cops with all the garb on – the vests and ammo and stuff – and we figured something might be going down,” said Mobile, Ala., resident Kurt Sowder. He seemed surprised to learn of the bombing attempt.
“It’s a small airport, so there’s a perception that maybe it would fly under the radar because it’s a smaller place,” Sowder said.
“It’s a little nutty. But it’s not going to prevent me from flying.”
Loewen, an avionics technician for Hawker Beechcraft Services, faces three charges in federal court: attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, attempting to damage property and attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
In a news conference Friday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said that no one was ever in danger. Federal agents had been monitoring Loewen since summer, authorities said.
Wichitan Ericka Harris and her husband, Michael, said that despite the plot, they felt safe in the airport. They awaited a flight to Dallas on Friday with their infant son, Henry.
Nearby, about a half-dozen officers from the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration and the Kansas Highway Patrol watched the line of passengers forming at the security checkpoint inside the lobby. Two Kansas state troopers handling a canine chatted as they stood near the rental car company counters.
Outside, a few armed officers stood guard near the terminal entrances. No one was stopped or questioned before or after they went through the doors.
“This stuff probably happens everywhere,” Ericka Harris said. She and Michael Harris both said news of the bombing attempt didn’t surprise them.
Chris Atkinson, of Cheyenne, Wyo., also wasn’t concerned.
“I’m glad they caught him,” he said while waiting for a flight to Denver.
“We were just happy we traveled and didn’t have to take our shoes off on the way here. That’s probably going to change now.”
But others, like Balbo and Van Driessen, expressed disbelief.
“You would expect something like this to happen maybe in the Middle East or in a major city like New York or Chicago,” Van Driessen said. “But over here, it’s Wichita.”