The suspicious material found inside luggage that prompted the shutdown of a California airport Tuesday morning turned out to be five soft drink bottles filled with honey, authorities said.
A passenger's suitcase tested positive for TNT at Bakersfield's Meadows Field during a routine swabbing of the bag's exterior, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. When TSA officials opened the bag, they found bottles filled with an amber liquid, he said.
"Why in this day and age would someone take a chance carrying honey in Gatorade bottles?" Youngblood asked. "That itself is an alarm. It's hard to understand."
Investigators said the bag's owner, Francisco Ramirez, 31, is a gardener from Milwaukee who has been cooperating with authorities. He flew to Bakersfield Dec. 23 to spend Christmas with his sister and was returning Tuesday when the alarm sounded.
When TSA agents opened one of the bottles and tested the contents, the resulting fumes nauseated them, Youngblood said. Both were treated and released at a local hospital.
"It's encouraging that the system did work, because something is not right there," Youngblood said. "The system worked the way it was supposed to, but it just takes time when you close an airport - and it costs a lot of money."
All flights into and out of Meadows Field were canceled for much of Tuesday as authorities searched the terminal for other potential explosives.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office bomb squad was expected to perform further tests on the honey to determine why at least two false positives were recorded for both TNT and the organic explosive acetone peroxide, or TATP. Bakersfield is about 110 miles north of Los Angeles.
Investigators want to know whether any chemical Ramirez uses in his gardening work could have left traces of potential explosives. They will also run tests on the honey to see if the smoke beekeepers use to subdue the insects could have triggered the false positive test.
Ramirez was not arrested Tuesday. Authorities initially questioned his immigration status, but US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Tuesday afternoon that Ramirez is a legal permanent resident of the US.
"I suspect after this he won't want to eat honey again, ever," Youngblood said.
The discovery came less than two weeks after a man was charged with trying to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit. He is alleged to have smuggled an explosive device on board the aircraft and set if off, but the device sparked only a fire and not the intended explosion.
Airline security has been tightened since the arrest.