To the customs agent at Los Angeles International Airport, the object spotted by an X-ray machine in a piece of luggage bound for Colombia on an Avianca Airlines jet looked like "three sticks of dynamite bound together."
Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad experts were not willing to get that descriptive. But after viewing the X-rays early Wednesday, they decided they had a "suspicious device" on their hands. So they hauled it out to a remote spot at the western edge of the airport and blew it to smithereens.
Upon examination of the smithereens, the device turned out to be a Nintendo game--or what was left of it.
Carlo Arias, a Los Angeles resident, said the game was a Christmas present for his nephews in Bogota. The suitcase belonged to his 21-year-old niece, Orfilia, who was flying to Bogota with her 17-month-old son, Andres Felipe Arias, to spend the holidays with their family.
Arias contended that his sister, who has the same name as his niece, was arrested at her home by police, and that he was frisked when he picked her up at a police station after she was released.
"I asked why they had to blow it up," he said angrily. "They didn't have to. The name, address and phone for my niece were on the suitcase. They could have just called and asked someone what was inside. We would have opened it up."
But none of the agencies involved--not the airline, not the police, not the U.S. Customs Service, not the FBI, which was also called in on the case--criticized the operation. All agreed that, in the wake of the explosion of an Avianca jetliner over Colombia earlier this week, the concerns that led to destruction of the suitcase were well founded.
Detective John Cameron of the LAPD's criminal conspiracy section said the Arias family was not telephoned because the address and phone number on the suitcase were for a home in Colombia, and officers did not learn immediately how to reach them here. Cameron said that when the family was found, the elder Orfilia Arias "was questioned. She was not arrested."
The flight for which the luggage had been destined--Avianca's Flight 73 to Bogota--had originally been scheduled to leave LAX at 7:20 p.m. Tuesday. But because of mechanical problems, the jet to be used on the flight was held up at Mexico City, and Flight 73 was rescheduled for Wednesday. As a result, screening of the baggage for Flight 73 at LAX's Terminal 2 was delayed until about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Mike Lovern, a customs supervisor at the airport, said the screening is a routine procedure for Avianca flights and has been intensified because of Monday's explosion of the Avianca jetliner that killed all 107 aboard shortly after takeoff from Bogota. Drug traffickers have claimed that they bombed the jet.
"With the situation in Colombia what it is, we don't like to take chances," Lovern explained. "It's just a higher stage of alertness."
Lovern said he was studying the baggage passing through the X-ray machine shortly after midnight when he saw "the image of three sticks of dynamite bound together" in a piece of soft-sided luggage.
He said he ran the piece through again, and saw the same thing--three cylindrical objects, about eight inches long, packed side by side.
"We've been running the machine for a year and we hadn't seen anything like this," Lovern said.
The customs supervisor said he called Los Angeles Airport Police, who called Los Angeles police, who dispatched their bomb squad.
Because of the possibly far-reaching implications of the incident, the LAPD's criminal conspiracy unit was also called in, as were FBI agents. The Federal Aviation Administration headquarters in Washington was also notified.
LAPD Lt. Helen Kidder of the criminal conspiracy unit said that, after examining the X-rays, the bomb squad agreed with Lovern that the contents of the suitcase were suspicious. Bomb squad experts decided to blow up the luggage after concluding that the device posed too great a threat to risk dismantling it manually.
After blowing up the suitcase with a small explosive device, bomb squad members scraped the debris from the Tarmac for analysis. They soon concluded that what they had destroyed was a video game.
An official of Nintendo of America, speaking from the company offices in Redmond, Wash., said there are no components of any of the company's games that are about eight inches long and cylindrical.
"The game cartridges are rectangular--about six inches long, four inches wide and a half an inch thick," said the official, who asked that his name not be used. "The cartridges go into a control deck, a box about 10 inches by a foot by about four inches. . . . The controllers are about four inches long and two inches wide. . . .
"Inside, you've got microprocessors, a printed circuit board, a bunch of wires," he said. "There's nothing there that looks like three sticks of dynamite."
Carlo Arias said that, in addition to the Nintendo game, the suitcase contained some Christmas cards, some money and "a beautiful lamp."
"There was no bomb."
Times staff writer Nieson Himmel contributed to this story.