Red-faced Port Authority officials are calling for an investigation into just how a Howard Beach man was able to swim up to John F. Kennedy International Airport from Jamaica Bay and breach the security perimeter without being noticed last week.
And in a scathing letter to Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, the union representing PA police officers is calling the airport’s perimeter detection system an “expensive piece of junk with no value as a security deterrent” while manned patrols have been slashed outside the airport.
Daniel Casillo, 31, was operating a personal watercraft in the bay on Friday evening, Aug. 10, when it became disabled. Unable to contact help, he swam for the nearest landmass, which happened to be the airport grounds.
Casillo, wearing a bright yellow life vest, was then able to climb an 8-foot barbed wire security fence and cross at least one working runway at one of the busiest airports in the world.
Despite a perimeter security system put in place by the Port Authority at a cost estimated by multiple sources to be in excess of $100 million, Casillo was able to walk undetected and unchallenged into an aircraft ramp area outside JFK’s Terminal 3, which houses operations for Delta Air Lines.
Shortly after being approached by a Delta employee and asking for help, he was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. He is free pending a court appearance on Oct. 2.
JFK is protected by a Perimeter Intrusion Detection System produced by the Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company.
The system consists of sensors, motion detectors and closed-circuit television cameras that are supposed to be monitored by civilian security personnel who are not affiliated with the Port Authority’s own police department.
According to the website of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, JFK covers 4,930 acres and has nine miles of runways and 30 miles of roadways.
Representatives of the Port Authority did not return calls seeking comment on the matter, but did release a statement.
“The Port Authority took immediate action to increase its 24/7 police presence with roun-the-clock patrols of the facility’s perimeter and increased patrols by boat of the surrounding waterway,” it said. “We have called for an expedited review of the incident and a complete investigation to determine how Raytheon’s perimeter intrusion detection system — which exceeds federal requirements — could be improved. Our goal is to keep the region’s airports safe and secure at all times.”
The Port Authority also operates LaGuardia Airport in Queens and Newark-Liberty and Teterboro airports in New Jersey.
An expert on airport security matters, speaking to the Chronicle on the condition of anonymity, said while federal standards are in place, each airport — or the Port Authority in the case of JFK — is responsible for its own perimeter security, which is incorporated into an Airport Security Program, or ASP.
The security expert said an ASP takes into account each airport’s unique footprint, location and possible security challenges. Each ASP must incorporate perimeter security, prevention and detection of unauthorized entry, and the presence and movement of both individuals and vehicles entering and within so-called secured areas.
The federal Transportation Safety Administration regulates each airport’s compliance and regularly conducts comprehensive security inspections.
On Monday a spokeswoman for the TSA would say only that “the TSA is working with the investigating authorities” in the wake of the JFK incident.
Staffing, as opposed to relying on technology, has been a sticking point between the Port Authority and its Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the PA’s police officers.
A union spokesman has called for a thorough investigation of the matter by the PA’s Inspector General’s Office. Union President Paul Nunziato, in a four-page letter dated Aug. 13, asked that any probe include a comprehensive review of the contract with Raytheon and continued PA payments to the company for a PIDS system that he claims “manifestly does not function.”
Nunziato’s letter states that whole sections of security fence have been destroyed by weather, with the system giving no indication over the course of months that the barrier was down.
“We can show you repeated instances where the PIDS did not detect a breach,” said PBA spokesman Bobby Egbert. “And not a single instance where it did.”
“The Port Authority has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a system that failed to detect a man wearing a bright yellow life vest who was looking for help,” Nunziato wrote. “This is not the first individual to gain access to the airside without setting off a PIDS alert. Imagine what a team of terrorists, not looking to be found, could do.”
Nunziato, a PA police officer for more than 25 years, is no novice when it comes to dealing with threats of terrorism — the Port Authority buried 37 of its officers who died responding to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
“I do not want my members to die in another terrorist attack,” the letter states. “I do not want the public to be endangered every time they use our facilities. I do not want to see my members forced from their homes by another round of 12-hour tours, seven days a week because the agency, yet again, failed to prepare for the inevitable attack on our facilities.”
Speaking Tuesday night, Egbert, who also is a PA officer, said Casillo would have benefited from a working system.
“He was able to climb a fence and may have walked up to two miles,” Egbert said. “If the system had been working it would have detected him and we would have come to him and given him aid.”
Egbert also said cuts to land, marine and air patrol manpower in recent years should be taken by the public as a safety issue, not a bargaining chip during contract talks. Nunziato’s letter hammered home the same theme.
“Let me be clear, I welcome any technology that will make our facilities more secure,” he wrote. “Again and again, Port Authority executives with no understanding of security deploy technology not to assist us in securing our facilities, but instead as a means of eliminating police.”