Two Transportation Security Administration officers were back at work at Tri-Cities Airport on Wednesday after an assignment of biblical proportions.
Tonya Koski and Jennifer Ayala were among 1,500 TSA officers who helped provide security during Pope Francis’ two-day visit to Philadelphia last weekend.
They screened thousands of visitors, from the public to bishops and other dignitaries, who came to see the pontiff at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
“For us, every day we are there to protect the public,” said Koski, who is in her first year with the TSA. “To do it on a grand scale was that much more satisfying.”
They started each day at 4 a.m. and didn’t get off work for 17 or 18 hours. They helped check out a crowd that filled a four-lane street for five blocks back from the gates. Their screening station included 10 walk-through metal detectors, as well as 10 hand wands.
“It went as far back as you can see,” Koski said.
“And I can see pretty far,” Ayala added.
The metal detectors went off often, the agents said. The larger crucifixes worn by clergy members contained metal, and choir members came through with metal spiral-bound notebooks.
“We did a day’s work in about an hour or two,” Ayala said.
Koski did get a glimpse of the pope during his procession down the parkway.
“It was almost by accident,” she said. “I was in an elevated area when the procession came by. When he came by, he was right there.”
Ayala only saw the top of the pope’s hat because she was still busy screening people, she said.
Most moving was hearing the roar of the crowd as the pope moved down the streets of Philadelphia, they said.
They felt fortunate because they were able to work at a variety of events, while many other officers were stationed in the same place. In all, they screened at nine checkpoints.
The people who passed through the checkpoints were generally pleasant and grateful for the security, despite the lines, the officers said.
They flew out Thursday, so they could get a briefing from the Secret Service. It was only the second plane trip that Ayala, a second-year TSA officer, has ever been on, despite working in an airport. She still wears the pin she got for her Secret Service duty on her uniform.
They only found out about the trip two weeks before they left, which Koski said is normal because it is difficult to know how many officers will be needed until plans are finalized.
Washington state provided 45 TSA agents for the pope’s visit, the third and final stop of his United States tour after Washington, D.C., and New York, Koski said. Of those, 25 were from the eastern part of the state, though they were the only two from Pasco.
The TSA provides security at many large events each year, including the Super Bowl, agency spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said. Employees volunteer for the assignments, which are made based on specific security need.
One major difference between the work for the papal events and their regular jobs at the airport is that they weren’t able to use baggage screening equipment for the pope’s visit, meaning all bags had to be inspected by hand. They were relieved to have the equipment back on Wednesday, the day after they arrived back in town.
“It’s funny how you take that equipment for granted — until you don’t have it,” Koski said.
“To be home with our team, and knowing how things are going to be run was nice, as well,” Ayala said. “But we definitely had a great time in Philadelphia.”