Tom Coury was serving as a top commander with the Pennsylvania State Police in 2001 when he was alerted to a plane crash near the rural town of Shanksville, Pa.

It was United Airlines Flight 93, one of the four airliners that were hijacked by terrorists during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Still disturbed by memories of Flight 93, Coury is determined to stop terrorists or anyone else from threatening airline passengers in his current role as federal security director at Atlantic City International Airport.

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"It was a hollowing feeling, because I knew a lot of people had died there," Coury recalled of the crash site in southwestern Pennsylvania that he would help oversee.

Although a relatively small airport in terms of airline traffic - handling about 1.4 million passengers annually - Atlantic City International is equipped with high-tech bomb detectors and multiple layers of security to thwart terrorist attacks. Coury insists Atlantic City's security is on par with the country's major airports.

"It will meet those standards. There's no question about that," he said. "I'm confident that the Atlantic City airport is as secure. I feel confident to fly out of Atlantic City International, and I feel confident to have my family and friends fly out of the airport. I don't think there is any better testimony than that."

In a behind-the-scenes tour of the airport, Coury showed off baggage-screening equipment and other technology used by his agency, the federal Transportation Security Administration, to protect airline passengers.

Travelers likely are unaware that once they check their luggage at the airline counter, the bags are sent by conveyor belt to a separate building, out of public view, that has large, CAT scan-like machines to search for bombs. At a rate of about 400 bags per hour, each piece of checked luggage is screened this way before it is loaded onto a plane.

The TSA's security officers also use trace detectors, which are smaller devices that search for the telltale chemical residue and vapors associated with explosives. Samples are taken by wiping cotton swabs on different parts of luggage and then feeding them into an explosives detector for analysis. Coury said the airport also has technology that analyzes the liquid in bottles for any explosives.

Out in the airport terminal, airline passengers must make their way through the security checkpoint before they are allowed access to the departure gates. As with other commercial airports, Atlantic City has been upgrading its technology at the checkpoints in recent years in the war on terrorism.

In 2012, it added full-body scanners that use electromagnetic waves - harmless to humans, Coury said - to detect explosives and weapons. The scanner resembles an upright tube or portal.

"Hands above your head. Stay still," one blue-shirted TSA security screener instructed a passenger as he entered the portal.

Passengers pause for about three seconds while the body scans occur. Their image is displayed in a nongender-specific outline to protect their privacy.

While CAT scans, chemical sniffers and electromagnetic waves form the high-tech security wall, there are also more standard parts of the screening process. Passengers must pass through metal detectors and have their carry-on bags scanned by X-ray machines, too. Footwear is still checked for explosives, requiring passengers to remove their shoes.

The airport owner, the South Jersey Transportation Authority, is in the process of replacing older analog-style surveillance cameras with more sophisticated digital models to enhance safety in the terminal and the parking lots.

In all, there are about 20 levels of airport security, including a database that gives a "mini-background check" on passengers when they book their flights, Coury explained. TSA partnered with airlines to phase in the program, an enhanced passenger watch-list matching system that more effectively identifies people who may pose a known or suspected threat to aviation.

"You have a lot more information on passengers now than in the past, which makes us a lot more comfortable," Coury said of the nation's security force.

Passengers who are generally not considered a serious risk to airport security include the elderly, young children, members of the military and airline flight crews, Coury noted.

Airport security nationwide was dramatically heightened after the 9/11 attacks. It was at that time the federal government formed the TSA to oversee airport security nationwide.

Coury joined the TSA in 2003, a year after he retired from the Pennsylvania State Police, where he worked for 33 years. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and served as State Police deputy commissioner in former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge's administration.

Coury was acting commissioner of the State Police on Sept. 11, 2001. When the horror of Flight 93 became known, it was Coury's job to brief Ridge on the crash.

"You could see a combination of pain and anger on his face," Coury said of Ridge, who would later become the country's first secretary of Homeland Security.

Coury oversaw the State Police security patrol at the crash scene. As a law-enforcement officer, he said, he had to keep his emotions in check, but one experience was particularly heart-wrenching.

"After a few days, families were showing up, and a makeshift memorial was set up," Coury said. "At one point, the husband of a flight attendant killed in the crash arrived at the scene. He had her flight attendant's uniform and hung it on the memorial. That was when the personal tragedy really hit me."

After joining the TSA, Coury was a top security official at the airports in Harrisburg, State College, Lancaster and Altoona, Pa., and in Hagerstown, Md. He took charge of security at Atlantic City International in 2012. In addition to Atlantic City, he serves as federal security director for the airports in Trenton and in New Castle, Del.

No terrorist ever has been detected at Atlantic City International, Coury said. However, passengers have been caught illegally carrying firearms, fireworks and flares.

Citing security reasons, Coury declined to disclose how many TSA screeners work at the airport. One of them is an explosives expert.

Coury credits cooperation between the TSA, New Jersey State Police, the South Jersey Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for enhancing airport security. The Port Authority took over the airport's operation from the SJTA last year, although the latter continues to own the passenger terminal.

Atlantic City International is located in Egg Harbor Township, about 10 miles west of Atlantic City. Sharing the airport grounds are the Federal Aviation Administration's William J. Hughes Technical Center and the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing. Both the FAA center and 177th Fighter Wing play major roles in the country's security network.

The FAA center is a national research and development site for aviation safety systems, including bomb-detection equipment. The 177th's fighter jets have patrolled the skies in the aftermath of 9/11 to protect major Northeast cities.

The presence of so many key government and military employees and facilities adjacent to the airport terminal has added to the TSA's vigilance in protecting the site, Coury stressed.

"There are a lot of what I would call significant assets," he said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

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