A “suspicious package” discovered underneath a vehicle at an Aiken hotel that sparked confusion and concern, as well as a rapid response from various law enforcement agencies, was later found to be a false alarm.
The Aiken County Sheriff's Office received a call at 8:22 a.m. about a suspicious vehicle at the Country Inn & Suites on Whiskey Road, according to Sheriff Michael Hunt. There officers found a tan-colored Ford Expedition with a few gas cans and a “type of cylinder” underneath the vehicle.
Investigators later located the owners of the vehicle.
“They are working with an out-of-town construction outfit that were working at a site where these cans and cylinders are not allowed,” Hunt said. “So, they simply set them at the back of this vehicle … instead of securing them in something else.”
The scare prompted a quick response from local, state and federal law enforcement.
Officers secured the scene and closed Whiskey Road from Citadel Drive to Talatha Church Road, which was reopened about noon. Occupants in the hotel were moved to the far end of the building, and everyone around the scene was moved at least 300 feet from the vehicle. Chukker Creek Elementary School went into a “soft lockdown” for a while.
Officers from the Aiken Department of Public Safety, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, the S.C. Highway Patrol, the State Transport Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as hazmat crews were on the scene assisting.
Hunt said during a press conference that while there was no danger to the public, “this is the way we treat suspicious packages or vehicles with suspicious stuff around.” He also alluded to Monday's bombing of the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured more than 170 others.
“Boston never really changed anything for us; 9/11 did,” he said. “We've always had good plans with our emergency services division and our other agencies – Chief Barranco at Public Safety and all our other state and federal agencies. So, we have a plan for just about everything. But one thing we don't do, we don't walk up to suspicious packages or vehicles that we think may be part of an explosive. … Err on the side of caution.”
Pattie Ferko, of Dalton, Ga., was walking out of the hotel about 9:15 a.m. when she was made aware of the situation.
“The sheriff was at the door. He said, 'You can't go anywhere' because there was a bomb underneath the car,” she said. “You could see there was a tank of air or propane or something and a red gas tank. So, they took everybody into the back of the building and kept everybody in until they took everything apart.”
Ferko said people in the room were upset.
“People were still having breakfast in the breakfast room; they took us out of the breakfast room and took us into the back of the building,” she said. “People were concerned, but we were just hoping it wasn't a bomb, and we needed to get out of here.”
Alyssa Romano, general manger of the hotel, said she was pleased with how authorities and her staff responded to the incident.
“Our No. 1 concern was our guests and making sure they were safe,” she said. “The police were handling everything that was happening outside, so our concern was everything that was happening inside and making sure they were OK. They updated us every so often to let us know what was going on.”
A reporter asked Hunt during the press conference if Thursday's incident was “a good practice run” for law enforcement.
“It ties up a lot of assets, but I think you'll see more of it,” he said. “I think folks are very vigilant right now. Their heightened awareness is at an all-time high – that's good. We want citizens to report stuff to us. And, quite frankly, if it doesn't look right to us, we're going to put the assets on it to make sure we take care of it the right way so no one gets injured.”
In Columbia on Wednesday, two suspicious bags found near Lady Street and Assembly Street shut down four blocks of Assembly Street for about two hours while authorities investigated were later found to be safe.