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August 12, 2007
Editor's note: The AP was the first to report this computer failure, which eventually stranded more than 20,000 passengers. This is the third of four stand-alone pieces that I wrote that night as the story developed.

By Amanda Beck

About 6,000 international passengers were stranded for as long as six hours Saturday on planes and in terminals at Los Angeles International Airport because a computer failure prevented them from passing through customs, authorities said.

The passengers were stranded in four airport terminals and in 24 planes starting at about 1:30 p.m. because of a breakdown in a computer system. It contains manifests of arriving passengers and law enforcement data about them including arrest warrants, Los Angeles World Airports spokesman Paul Haney said.

"That system allows our officers to make decisions on who we can allow to enter the United States," said Mike Fleming, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman. "You just don't know by looking at them."

Some of the computers were functioning again by 9:15 p.m., and authorities had begun slowly processing the huge backlog of passengers in order of their arrival.

Customs officials also diverted some incoming flights to airports in Ontario, Calif. and Las Vegas, Fleming said.

Terminals that normally accept international passengers had been full since at least 2:30 p.m., and passengers landing at LAX since then had to remain on the runway.

"This is just unbearable," said Gaynelle Jones, 57, who landed on a 13-hour flight from Hong Kong at about 2:15 p.m. and was still sitting on her plane five hours later. She said she had missed her connecting flight to Houston.

"We've already been on a plane for several hours, and they have no timeframe for when we'll be able to get off," Jones told the Associated Press from her cell phone.

Airport officials said the stranded planes were connected to ground power and passengers had access to food, water and bathrooms. However, several of those on board said that food was scarce and that infants and the elderly were in need of formula and medication.

"People are getting a little stir-crazy, feeling claustrophobic," said Chris Cognac, 39, who was returning with a group of family and friends including 10 children from a week in Puerto Vallarta. The group had been sitting on the tarmac for five hours when he spoke by phone.

Passengers on his plane were in the aisles, holding their carry-on luggage, and ready to disembark when the flight crew asked them to return to their seats, Cognac said.

"Everybody's pretty angry with customs at the moment because they're not informing anyone of anything," Cognac said. "It's becoming a logistical issue with diapers."

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