Bomb scare delays tourney game; nothing found

Updated: March 16, 2006, 8:52 PM ET
Associated Press

SAN DIEGO -- The arena for the first-round NCAA men's Tournament game between Alabama and Marquette was temporarily evacuated Thursday after bomb-sniffing dogs detected "something strange" on a food vendor's cart about two hours before tipoff.

Drehs: A drill?
SAN DIEGO -- "Is something wrong?" I asked the security guard, wondering why he wasn't letting me exit the parking ramp and head to the media entrance at Cox Arena.

"Umm, umm, umm," he mumbled. "It's a drill."

Yeah, a drill. An hour-and-a-half before tip-off for the first of four NCAA Tournament games. A drill.

"Proceed to the back of the ramp," he told me. "You'll see everybody else waiting there."

Sure enough, he was right. Standing in the middle of an empty parking lot were other writers and reporters, along with San Diego State and NCAA officials.

Apparently a dog had smelled something suspicious in a vending cart during routine pre-game inspection. The building was evacuated and a local bomb squad was called in to investigate. In the end, it proved to be nothing more than a pooch with an overzealous smeller, which helped explain the first question of a debriefing with representatives from the NCAA and San Diego State Police Department.

How experienced were these dogs?

Lieutenant Robert McManus of the San Diego State Police Department, the incident commander, explained that both dogs had worked on presidential visits. They had a wealth of experience. And hopefully this wouldn't happen again.

"We're not sure what the dog may have reacted on," McManus said. "That's being investigated."

-- Wayne Drehs

After the FBI, police and security officials checked, the all-clear was given at Cox Arena nearly two hours later. The game began at 12:50 p.m. -- 70 minutes after the original start time.

"Ultimately, after a period of time, it was determined that there was not a hazard, explosive, biohazard, whatever you would like to call it, associated with that cart," said Lt. Robert McManus, incident commander for the San Diego State police department.

The large silver cart, filled with condiments, straws and paper towels among other items, initially drew the suspicion of one dog, McManus said. Another dog detected the same thing.

"Two other dogs were brought in and they didn't smell it," he said.

FBI spokeswoman Jan Caldwell initially said the dogs detected a package inside a 4-by-6-inch condiment container in the cart located on the upper concourse of San Diego State's arena. A bomb robot was sent to the scene, she said.

"Ultimately, there was not an object. It was the cart in general that was under suspicion when the dogs alerted on it," McManus said. He said investigators were not sure what the first two dogs detected.

The dogs are trained by the Transportation Security Administration and have worked on presidential visits to San Diego, McManus said.

Investigators removed the cart from the arena.

"Not because we thought it was still a hazard," McManus said. "We just want to double-check and see if we can determine what substance, if any, the dog alerted on."

The days' other three games at Cox Arena were expected to begin only a few minutes behind schedule, said Chris Hill, a member of the NCAA Division I basketball committee.

Cox Arena Fans
AP Photo/Chris ParkFans and media wait after they were evacuated from Cox Arena at San Diego State University.
"We will continue to remain vigilant in our security planning throughout our tournament, and the safety and security of our student-athletes, teams and fans is paramount," the NCAA said in a statement.

Fans and officials were originally told to gather behind a parking structure across the street. That structure was closed during the investigation.

Players and staff from Alabama and Marquette stayed at their hotels until they were told it was OK to enter the arena.

The FBI warned last week of a recent Internet posting discussing terrorists attacks aimed at college basketball arenas and other sports stadiums, but also said there were no specific or credible threats.

Authorities were alerted at 9:18 a.m., before the scheduled 10 a.m. opening of the arena, and evacuated a "handful" of vendors who were inside, said Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

The bomb-sniffing dogs belonged to a private security company hired by the NCAA, said Detective Gary Hassen, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press