Following lesson of United 93, air travelers are quick to react on their own to threats aloft

By Ed White, AP
Saturday, December 26, 2009

After United 93, air travelers react to threats

DETROIT — They heard a pop that sounded like fireworks. They saw a glow of flame followed by a rush of smoke. And that was enough for passengers on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to pounce.

From several seats away, Dutch tourist Jasper Schuringa says he jumped to extinguish a fire ignited by a quiet man who just moments before allegedly told passengers his stomach was upset and pulled a blanket over himself. Schuringa said his first thought wasn’t to signal a flight attendant or wait for an air marshal to break cover, but rather, “He’s trying to blow up the plane.”

“I basically reacted directly,” Schuringa said Saturday in an interview with CNN. “I didn’t think. I just jumped. I just went over there and tried to save the plane.”

Aviation safety experts once would have called Schuringa’s actions a mistake and cautioned passengers against fighting back during hijackings and other crises in the air. That was before the Sept. 11 attacks and the actions of passengers on United Flight 93, who learned while aloft about the hijacked jets that slammed earlier that day into New York’s World Trade Center.

They staged a cabin revolt against the al-Qaida terrorists who had taken control of their flight and died when their plane crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa. But they succeeded in keeping the jet from destroying another building that day, and their story became legend.

“I don’t think people are going to sit back and let somebody kill them in the process of fulfilling their extremist agenda or whatever it happens to be,” said Dave Heffernan, who helps oversee self-defense training for commercial flight crews at Valenica Community College in Orlando, Fla. “People have talked about it. They’ve thought about it. They have a plan of action.”

On Saturday, a day after the failed attack on Northwest 253, federal prosecutors charged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a native of Nigeria, with trying to destroy the airliner with a device containing a high explosive attached to his body. They alleged that Abdulmutallab set off the device — sparking a fire instead of an explosion — as the flight from Amsterdam descended toward Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Schuringa, of Amsterdam, told CNN that he didn’t think about his own safety when he extinguished the fire with his hands. He and other passengers said that several people on board, including members of the flight crew, then joined him in taking Abdulmutallab to first class to strip off his clothes and search for any more explosives.

Schuringa did not immediately reply to e-mail and phone messages from The Associated Press.

“In a matter of minutes everything was settled down. … The passengers were proactive. We just did it. There was nothing to talk about,” said Syed Jafry, 57.

Another passenger, Richelle Keepman, 24, of Oconomowoc, Wis., said passengers were later interviewed by authorities and released from the airport. When Schuringa came through the area, “We were all clapping,” she said.

Schuringa joins the passengers on United 93 and others who have leapt into action to defend themselves aloft since 9/11. Just three months after the attacks, Briton Richard Reid was overpowered by passengers and crew members on a flight from Paris to Miami as he tried to ignite plastic explosives hidden in his shoes. A doctor onboard went so far as to inject the restrained Reid with a sedative.

Passengers aren’t only responding to obvious acts of terror. In June, two off-duty officers handcuffed a traveler who took off his clothes and kicked and punched a flight attendant on a US Airways flight to Los Angeles from Charlotte, N.C. In April 2008, passengers duct-taped a drunken man to his seat after he attacked a United Airlines flight attendant on a trip to Los Angeles from Hong Kong.

“Aggressive intervention has become the new societal norm,” said Bill Voss, an expert at the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

The day after the attack, authorities at airports worldwide tightened security, imposing extra searches on the ground and telling passengers flying to the U.S. from overseas they can’t get out of their seat during the last hour of their flight. None seemed to mind, and many said they knew the story of United 93 and would respond aggressively if the new security measures failed.

“I know how to tackle,” said Stephen Evans, 39, a former rugby player traveling from Chicago to Dulles International Airport near Washington. “Your odds are better to get the guy and risk an explosion on the plane rather than fly into Washington’s Monument or what have you.”

Jennifer Allen, 41, of Shelby Township, Mich., arrived in Detroit from Amsterdam on Saturday’s Northwest 253.

“We’re not so blase, not so willing to accept that we’re safe and we can let someone do our security for us,” she said. “We’re not going to sit there and wait for somebody else to do it because if you wait, it might be too late.”

Corey Williams in Romulus, Mich., Jim Irwin in Detroit and Jessica Gresko in Washington contributed to this report.

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