The struggle on the plane lasted only a few minutes, but a seasoned traveler aboard the United Airlines flight that was forced to make an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport late Monday night described them as the most terrifying minutes of her life.
Donna Tellam was among the 33 passengers and six crew members aboard the Denver-bound flight that left Dulles about 10:15 p.m. She was relaxing in her seat in first class, playing a game on her phone, when a man came running down the aisle toward the cockpit.
He was waving his arms and yelling, she said.
The man, whom Tellam described as small and thin with dark hair, was clearly distressed. He kept saying that the plane “was going too slow, that it was going to fall . . . and all of us were going to die,” Tellam said Tuesday, recounting the experience from her home in Boulder, Colo.
The man was standing with his back to Tellam when several passengers stood up to grab him. She said one man lay on top of him and another took hold of his feet.
“The guy who brought him down had the guy behind him take off his shoes, check for bombs and check for weapons,” Tellam said. “That was everyone’s first concern. So we heard him telling them please pat him down and make sure he doesn’t have anything on him.”
She said that the men held the distressed passenger down until the plane returned to Dulles Airport.
“I felt safe again once they had him under control,” she said. “I knew we were turning the plane around and he was handcuffed, and there was no way he was going to do anything else.”
For many of the passengers and their friends and loved ones who later heard about the incident or saw video of the scuffle as it made its way online, the scene invoked memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On that day, the actions of passengers aboard one of the hijacked planes thwarted an attack on the U.S. Capitol.
There were reports that at least one of the men who helped subdue the passenger was a federal air marshal, but officials with knowledge of the incident said there were no federal officers onboard. The officials asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the news media.
Officers from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department met the plane and took custody of the man, who was taken to a local hospital for observation, airport spokeswoman Kimberly Gibbs said. No charges have been filed in the incident, she added. Authorities did not release any other information about the man. Police reports in Virginia are not public information.
After the man was taken into custody, officials searched the plane. Passengers were allowed off the aircraft — a twin-jet Boeing 737 — about midnight.
Later, Tellam texted her husband that the incident was the “scariest moment of my life.” She told him she grabbed the guy sitting next to her and held on to him.
Tellam said members of the flight crew later told her that the man had been “banned” from flying all day because of his behavior at the terminal. She said one crew member told her that he had noticed something was not right with the passenger — and had asked he be taken off the plane — but that he was ultimately allowed to stay onboard.
“I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that is what the flight crew told me,” Tellam said. “If he was acting crazy in the terminal, why was he allowed to stay in the terminal? And if he was banned from flights all day, why was he allowed to get on a flight later in the day? I just don’t understand.”
Luke Punzenberger, a United Airlines spokesman, said in a statement only that a passenger “failed to comply with crew instructions.”
Punzenberger did not provide additional information on the disruption that unfolded shortly after Flight 1074 took off from Dulles Airport. When asked about Tellam’s comments that the man had been acting strangely in the terminal, Punzenberger said, “We are reviewing the entire incident.”
Tellam, who was returning home after a business trip to London, told her husband she was sitting playing a game and waiting to retrieve her laptop when the man ran straight past her, screaming.
He made it to the area where flight attendants typically sit outside the cockpit before three men tackled him, she said.
Tellam also told her husband that the passenger was saying “jihadists” were on the plane, but authorities have offered no details on the incident.
On Tuesday morning, Tellam’s husband was preparing to go pick her up at the airport in Denver.
“I was scared,” he said of receiving her text and hearing about the incident.
According to conversations between air traffic controllers and the pilots, the unidentified man ran toward the cockpit before being restrained by passengers.
Recordings provided by LiveATC.net, which provides live air traffic control communications online, show that the pilot of the flight requested permission to return to Dulles Airport because of a “situation with a passenger.”
“Right now, it’s not an emergency, but we will let you know if it turns into one,” the pilot added in a calm voice.
A few seconds later, the pilot resumes contact. “United 1074, declaring an emergency due to a passenger, uh, disturbance. He’s restrained; we need to return to the airport,” the pilot said, according to the recording.
“We had a passenger becoming violent, no weapon involved,” the pilot later explains. “He’s restrained by other passengers now, though. We don’t know his mental condition. But it sounds like he’s restrained for now. We just need to get on the ground right now.”
After the pilot was asked by controllers, he said the incident was a “Level 2” disturbance. That is said to be the second-lowest level of severity on a four-level scale. A Level 2 disturbance in the industry means there has been physically abusive behavior but no life-threatening behavior.
A video posted online that purports to show scenes from the flight pictures a man being held down by other passengers.
Gibbs, the airport spokeswoman — said in an e-mail that there was “no impact to airport operations.” The passengers aboard the plane were rebooked by the airline to Denver. Gibbs said that at about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday, the plane was on its way to Denver.
Alice Crites, Ashley Halsey and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.