PHOENIX — A woman driving with her infant son in her car crashed through a gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and drove on the runway in the latest in a series of similar mishaps across the country that have raised questions whether the nation's airports are truly secure.
The woman rammed the partially open airport gate around 10 p.m. Thursday and started crossing the runway, police spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump said. Officers forced the car to stop after a few minutes and detained the driver.
KoKo Nicole Anderson, 21, from nearby Mesa, was booked into jail on aggravated DUI and criminal damage charges. Police suspect she had taken an unknown drug and don't believe Anderson was impaired from alcohol. A drug-recognition expert was called to the scene shortly after Anderson's arrest.
The child — a 2-month-old boy — was in a car seat. He wasn't hurt and has been turned over to relatives. Crump said Anderson was so impaired she didn't even know her son was in the car.
"We don't believe her intent was to harm here," Crump said. "We believe it's impairment and poor decision making."
Such incidents are troublesome because a vehicle that crashed into a jetliner landing or taking off could cause a catastrophe, whether it was an intoxicated driver behind the wheel or a terrorist, said Jeff Price, an aviation professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and former assistant security director at Denver International Airport.
Airports in general need to think about adding barriers that automatically pop up if an unauthorized vehicle enters a gate as part of an overall upgrade of perimeter security that also includes better detection systems, he said. He noted that Sky Harbor meets federal security standards.
The incident was the latest involving vehicles crashing through the Phoenix airport's gates or fences and getting onto its runways. Sky Harbor spent $10 million to upgrade its perimeter security and access gates after a man being chased by police in 2005 crashed a stolen pickup through a gate and drove onto the runways, passing several jets on a taxiway.
In 2003, two teens in a stolen car crashed through a perimeter fence and drove onto the airfield. Both incidents caused brief closure of aircraft operations.
Anderson had smashed her Saturn sedan into another gate at a nearby parking lot just minutes before, then continued driving and ended up on an airfield access road, police and Sky Harbor officials said at a press conference on Friday.
Sky Harbor spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher said an airport operations worker was testing the gate as it was closing when the small sedan crashed through. The worker promptly notified police and the control tower, which ordered a halt to air traffic operations.
As the car made it onto a runway, Anderson lost control, then took off again, Crump said.
A police probable cause statement filed in support of the criminal charges said she then hit a portable toilet and kept driving until an officer rammed her car and caused it to spin car around and crash into a fence.
She did not get out of the car after it stopped, and police found her with a pacifier in her month. All she told officers was that she wanted her flip-flop shoe.
Ostreicher said no aircraft were nearby at the time and no passengers were in immediate danger. Airport operations were stopped for about 15 minutes.
The airport's operators are satisfied with its fence security and that Sky Harbor exceeds federal security standards, Ostreicher said. She said the airport has no plans at this point to beef up fence security, but will work with federal authorities to see if there are other things the Phoenix airport could be doing.
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