Mother: Sky Harbor woman has mental health issues

Associated Press Modified: November 17, 2012 at 3:17 am •  Published: November 17, 2012
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PHOENIX (AP) — The 21-year-old woman who crashed through a gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and drove on the runway with her infant son in the car has a history of mental illness, her mother says.

The security breach was 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.

The airport said no aircraft were nearby at the time and no passengers were in immediate danger. Airport operations were stopped for about 15 minutes.

KoKo Nicole Anderson, 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 she was impaired from alcohol. A drug-recognition expert was called to the scene shortly after her arrest.

However, the woman's mother, Bebe Anderson, told The Associated Press late Friday that she doesn't believe her daughter was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She explained that her daughter has a history of mental illness.

"She's not going to be stable until she gets on medication. I'm so scared. I'm at a loss of how to help her," Bebe Anderson said, noting that her daughter suffers from a bi-polar disorder. "I'm just really hoping someone can advocate for her."

Police told television station KPHO that they were aware of the younger Anderson's possible mental health issues and that she would be evaluated.

Her 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.

In Thursday night's incident, an airport operations worker was testing the gate when the small sedan crashed through, Sky Harbor spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher said. The worker promptly notified police and the control tower, which ordered a halt to air traffic operations.