Flight diverted to Boston after passenger tries to ignite 'improvised explosives'
By Ken Maguire, Associated Press, 12/22/01
BOSTON -- A passenger on a jetliner bound from Paris to Miami tried to ignite an "improvised explosive" in his shoe Saturday, but flight attendants and fellow passengers subdued him, authorities said. The plane, escorted by military jets, landed safely in Boston.
The suspect was taken into custody by the FBI. A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities are investigating whether the man was of Middle Eastern descent and used a bogus passport with the fake identity "Richard Reid."
In recent weeks, the official said, the government issued a warning to airlines indicating potential hijackers might try to smuggle weapons in their shoes. The official declined to say what intelligence prompted the warning.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Saturday night that officials were determining whether the incident might signal the need for another broad warning to U.S. citizens.
"The investigation is ongoing and we are continuing to monitor events with the FBI and others involved," McClellan said.
After the man tried to light a fuse protruding from his shoe, a flight attendant intervened and the 6-foot-4 suspect resisted and bit her, authorities said.
Passengers subdued the man, some taking off their own belts to secure him into his seat, officials said. Two doctors used the airplane's onboard medical kit to sedate him, and the man's shoe was removed.
The incident, coming at the start of a busy travel weekend leading to Christmas, was bound to increase anxiety among airline passengers, many of whom have been reluctant to fly since the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.
The government and airlines have taken steps to tighten security aboard planes, including banning knives or other blades and increasing the number of passengers whose luggage is searched.
Two F-15 fighter jets escorted the plane, American Airlines Flight 63, to Logan, where it landed at 12:50 p.m. with police, fire and bomb squads standing by. The 185 passengers and 12 crew members were taken off safely.
"They X-rayed the shoe and found that in the heel, there were holes drilled, and there looked to be a detonator wire, and the substances consistent with (the explosive) C-4," said Massport spokeswoman Laura White.
The shoe was taken from the 767 jetliner, rendered harmless and taken to an FBI lab, along with the man's other shoe, officials said.
Kinton said the shoe contained an "improvised explosive." But the FBI was continuing to examine the substance to see whether it was an explosive, according to a government official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The F-15s were ordered into the air by the Defense Department, which since Sept. 11 has been in regular contact with the Federal Aviation Administration.
White House officials monitored the situation throughout the afternoon and President Bush received two briefings, McClellan said. Administration officials also consulted with acting Gov. Jane Swift's office.
Swift praised those who reacted quickly after the suspect confronted the attendant.
"The flight attendants and passengers who helped subdue the suspect showed great bravery and poise in what was obviously a very dangerous situation," she said in a statement. "Their heroic acts may have potentially saved the lives of the nearly 200 people on board Flight 63."
White said the man's passport, issued in Belgium three weeks ago, was "questionable." He boarded the plane without luggage or additional identification and was apparently traveling alone.
The suspect was being interrogated at the airport by the FBI. The other passengers were also being questioned, White said, and the aircraft and luggage were searched. The passengers were to be put on another flight to Miami, an airport spokesman said.
The intervention on the flight "appeared to have prevented something very serious from occurring," Kinton said.
The FBI's Kim McAllister confirmed that one man was in FBI custody for "interference with a flight crew," but had not been arrested.
An official with the British Foreign Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "We are seeking normal consular access as we would with any U.K. citizen."
C-4 is a military plastic explosive. Its main ingredient is RDX, which is also used in fireworks. The whitish, puttylike substance can be easily molded by hand. Although large amounts of C-4 can explode if they are burned, small amounts are unlikely to be detonated without a blasting cap.
The explosive was used in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 U.S. sailors and wounding 39.
American Airlines spokesman Al Becker said that the plane was more than two hours from Boston when the incident occurred.
"I know that as part of the security measures there are ways of checking documentation and making sure that all documents are in order, and all of those systems and procedures were in place," he said.
He said that the airline was cooperating with the investigation.
Two of the Sept. 11 hijacked planes -- those that crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower and the Pentagon -- were also operated by American Airlines.
Saturday's incident did not interrupt any flights in or out of Logan.
Passenger Allison Cohen, 21, of Wayland, Mass., exited the plane and telephoned her father to tell him she was all right. He drove to the airport, where police allowed him to speak to her briefly.
"I'm doing better after I saw her," said Jeff Cohen of Newport, R.I. His daughter, a college student studying in Paris, was on her way to Florida for a vacation.
He said she told him she had not seen the scuffle, which took place in the coach section.