Fear and heroism aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 after attempted bombing

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 27, 2009; A06

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."

Schuringa, on his way to Miami for vacation, leaped from the other side of the plane toward the fire as it spread from Abdulmutallab's pants to pillows on the floor. He said he reacted without thinking, fearful that the fire would cause an explosion that would bring down the plane and nearly 300 passengers and crew members.

As other passengers shouted for water, Schuringa pulled the melted plastic syringe from Abdulmutallab, shook it and threw it to the floor, the FBI said in an affidavit. Flight attendant Dionne Ransom-Monroe asked the suspect what was in his pocket, the FBI said, and he replied, "Explosive device."

The fire out, Schuringa marched Abdulmutallab to the front of the plane, helped by a flight attendant. They stripped off some of his clothes, searched him for weapons and handcuffed him, Schuringa said on CNN, explaining that the suspect seemed almost in a trance. Abdulmutallab said nothing and did not resist, he said.

"He looked like a normal guy," Schuringa said. "It's just hard to believe he was actually trying to blow up this plane."

Saigal, 63, said Schuringa "was holding him from the back, with a strong grip."

"When he went back to his seat, we all clapped," Saigal said of Schuringa.

Passengers and crew members worked to restore calm as the jet sped toward Detroit. Syed Jafry, an engineering consultant from Ohio who watched from Row 16, said the captain told passengers over the intercom: "There was an incident, and everything is under control. It is over. Fasten your seat belts. We are about to land."

As investigators explore how Abdulmutallab allegedly smuggled power and chemicals aboard the flight, Saigal and Keepman voiced distinctly different views of security in Amsterdam, the airliner's last stop before reaching Detroit.

"They're very thorough," Saigal said. "Always in Amsterdam, you go through people questioning you . . . and they put your hand baggage, your purse -- not your shoes -- through security again."

Keepman, however, said security procedures in Amsterdam seemed less rigorous than the measures he had faced at the Detroit airport on his outbound flight.

"I have to be honest, it was lax compared to here," said Keepman, who co-owns a transportation logistics company. "They push you through quite quickly, especially on international flights, because there are so many people to get through."

Keepman was not impressed with the questioning session.

"They ask the questions," Keepman said. "But the person's going to look you right in the eye and lie to you: 'Are you carrying something that could explode on the plane?' 'Certainly not, sir.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company