Fear and heroism aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 after attempted bombing

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MICH. -- First came an alarming popping sound, followed by silence, and then the unmistakable smell of smoke. Passengers began to shout and scream on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam.

"People were just running, and they were scared," said Veena Saigal, who turned from her seat on the Christmas Day flight and saw the fire's glow six rows back. "They were running toward the center of the plane, running to get away from the flames."

Jasper Schuringa, an Amsterdam resident, lunged toward the fire in Row 19, jumping from one side of the plane to the other and over several other passengers. He burned his fingers as he grabbed a piece of melting plastic held by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused Saturday of trying to bring down the passenger jet with a homemade explosive device.

Schuringa, a video producer, restrained Abdulmutallab as others used blankets and fire extinguishers to douse the flames.

"When I saw the suspect, that he was getting on fire, I freaked, of course, and without any hesitation I just jumped over all the seats," Schuringa told CNN on Saturday. "And I jumped to the suspect. I was thinking like, he's trying to blow up the plane."

The stretch of time from bafflement to abject fear to a calamity averted lasted just a few minutes on the flight, yet as they replayed those moments from their homes on Saturday, passengers described a drama that left many shaken long after the jetliner safely touched down.

"We heard a pop, then the smell and the reality kicked in for all of us. The reality was the fear in the flight attendants' eyes," said Charles Keepman, a Wisconsin businessman returning from Ethiopia, where he and his wife had adopted two children. "We're just thankful to the Lord that we were spared."

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, praised the quick reactions of those on the plane, which recalled the heroism of passengers who had subdued so-called shoe-bomber Richard C. Reid as he tried to ignite chemicals on a flight in December 2001 and the actions of people on United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I am grateful to the passengers and crew aboard Northwest Flight 253 who reacted quickly and heroically to an incident that could have had tragic results," Napolitano said in a statement Saturday.

The flight from Amsterdam to Detroit seemed long and uneventful until the final minutes, passengers said. Witnesses told the FBI that Abdulmutallab, 23, spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom before returning to Seat 19A and complaining of an upset stomach. He pulled a blanket over his head.

Then came the loud and sudden popping sound.

"What I heard was a firecracker, like a champagne bottle opening. I thought maybe something happened to a window or something hit the plane," said Saigal, who was returning to Ann Arbor from India in Row 13. "Then I smelled the smoke. When I turned around, I could see the fire glow."

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