March 18, 2010

Inside story of terror on Flight 253

Passengers on Detroit-bound jet recount failed attack that changed their lives

After the screams died down and the smoke dissipated, the passenger cabin of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day was eerily quiet. An Indian woman stared out the window at the fast-approaching subdivisions and freeways surrounding Detroit Metro Airport. A businessman frantically texted on his BlackBerry. A scared mother clutched her children.

The Keepman family held hands and sang "Jesus Loves Me." Roey Rosenblith hummed the Sh'ma and braced himself for what he feared was an upcoming crash.

In Row 1, Melinda Dennis focused on the bare foot of a silent young man across the aisle, the foot flexing up and down slowly as the jet dove toward a runway. Underwear bunched up around the man's ankles, rising and falling with the methodical movement of his foot. A gray blanket covered most of the man's naked legs and groin, but left exposed white and black patches of burned flesh on the side facing Dennis.

Flight attendant Dionne Ransom-Monroe leaned over the half-naked man.

"What did you have in your pants?" she asked.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab whispered something. The flight attendant leaned closer and asked again.

"What did you have in your pants?"

"Explosive device," he said louder, his right foot flexing up and down, up and down.

In a series of interviews with The Detroit News, passengers from four continents described details of the attempted terrorist attack never before released to the public. Many never saw what happened, and most didn't realize until hours later that they had shared their Christmas Day flight with a terrorist bent on bringing down the airplane.

EARLY FEARS

At 6:30 Christmas morning, the seating area at Gate E-7 of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam was bursting at the seams with tired, impatient travelers waiting to board an Airbus A330 for a flight to Detroit.

Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus jostled elbow-to-elbow in a room built to seat about half of the 278 passengers booked on Northwest Flight 253. Lines formed in the small bathrooms. Most stood or squatted against walls.

There were Americans coming home from dream vacations, Europeans visiting sweethearts in the states and natives of India returning to their adopted homes in the United States and Canada. Two families were bringing newly adopted children home to the United States from Ethiopia.

Many passengers had already flown for hours to arrive in Amsterdam to catch the connection to the United States.

Roey Rosenblith had flown all night from Nairobi, Kenya, and, preparing to board an eight-hour flight, he was annoyed that no restaurants were open to grab breakfast. The St. Louis native, heading home to see his family, had lived in Uganda since June. There, he operated a startup business selling inexpensive solar-powered electrical sources to villagers with no access to the power grid. After six months in rural Africa, the 27-year-old felt out of place in a shiny airport, in a blizzard, surrounded by "so many white people."

Rosenblith made small talk with Laura Vincent, a 24-year-old public housing authority employee from Chester-le-Street, England, who'd spent the night in the airport to catch the flight. Vincent was meeting her family in Orlando, Fla., for a vacation. She was nervous because it was the first time she'd flown on an airplane alone. Rosenblith told her not to worry.

Vincent and numerous other passengers were on the flight because of snow cancellations of previous flights. The Lammerts family from the Netherlands had been trying to get to America for five days, but kept getting bumped because of weather and ticket mix-ups. Though passengers could barely see across the tarmac through another snowstorm, the Dec. 25 flight was scheduled to leave on time at 8:30 a.m. The Lammerts were relieved, knowing they'd be able to celebrate Christmas with relatives in the Detroit suburb of Beverly Hills.

The Lammerts sat on the floor in front of the boarding gate as the Keepman family from Oconomowoc, Wis., rushed down the terminal with two wide-eyed children in tow. Scotti Keepman, 51, and her husband, Charles Keepman, 43, were coming home from two weeks in Ethiopia, where they had adopted an 8-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. The day marked the first airplane trip for both children, and they looked around the airport in wonder.

The security checkpoints for the gate, adjacent to the waiting area, were chaotic and overcrowded, as airport workers rushed to clear passengers for the flight. The Keepman family was pushed through metal detectors without taking off their shoes or baggy coats, Scotti Keepman recalls. She had forgotten to discard a large bottle of water before reaching security, but the bottle went through unnoticed. Charles Keepman rolled his eyes at what the couple considered lax security.

"I had a very uncomfortable feeling about this flight," Scotti Keepman recalled later. "It was too chaotic, with people from all over the world and sloppy airline security."

She asked her 24-year-old daughter, Richelle, who'd accompanied them on the trip, to say a prayer for their safety.

"What's wrong with you?" Richelle asked.

"Everything about this flight gives me the willies," her mother said.

On the outside of the security checkpoints of Gate E-7, in a less-crowded waiting area, a diminutive 23-year-old Nigerian leaned against a wall next to a restroom. One hand was on his hip, and the other hand rubbed his forehead. Abdulmutallab would later tell his seatmate on the airplane that his stomach hurt from eating bad airport food.

He'd paid $2,831 for a round-trip ticket in Accra, Ghana, on Dec. 16 for a Dec. 25 flight from Lagos, Nigeria, to Amsterdam, then on to Detroit. Originally, he'd purchased a ticket that would return him Jan. 8 to Accra; later the same day, though, he'd returned to the airline office and changed his return destination to Lagos.

Abdulmutallab paid cash for the ticket, a common practice in many African countries.

At 10:30 p.m. local time on Christmas Eve, Abdulmutallab boarded a flight in Lagos that landed in Amsterdam at 5 a.m., three and a half hours before the flight to Detroit was to take off.

When boarding began at 6:51 a.m., Abdulmutallab still hadn't gone through security at the gate.

One other passenger was waiting until the last minute to board. Shama Chopra was sick, too. The Montreal resident, 54, had contracted food poisoning before leaving India, where she had visited relatives and worked at a New Delhi religious charity.

She sat across the waiting area from Abdulmutallab, watching the young man. To Chopra, the Nigerian didn't seem sick -- he seemed nervous.

ROUGH START

Herded onboard over the course of an hour, passengers maneuvered carry-on luggage into packed overhead compartments. Groans went up through the cabin as the pilot informed travelers that takeoff would be delayed 25 minutes as the jet's wings were de-iced.

Vincent, whose trip to Orlando had already been delayed by 24 hours, shrugged in resignation. "Well," she said to her seatmate in Row 16, "it can't get any worse than this."

Richard Griffith settled in for a nap in Row 36 in the back section of the plane. A bad Michigan economy had pushed the Gulf War veteran back to Iraq, this time as a civilian contractor. In recent months, the 41-year-old electrician had helped close a regional embassy in Al-Hillah, about two hours south of Baghdad. Several times a week, insurgents fired mortars into the encampment. First, there was a shrill whistle as the rocket flew toward the camp, and then a dull thud as it hit. He always hoped to hear the thuds before he went to bed, so he could sleep better, knowing he was safe for the rest of the night.

He considered his work to be a calculated risk to pay off bills at home. Taking his seat on Flight 253, Griffith was glad to be away from explosions for awhile.

Most passengers were seated when Abdulmutallab entered the airplane. He paused at Row 19, in the middle of the passenger cabin directly over the left wing. Jay Howard rose to let him reach the window seat.

Howard, a 23-year-old Calvin College student from Grand Rapids, coming home from a semester studying abroad in Budapest, Hungary, recalls his seatmate being polite but quiet through most of the trip. Abdulmutallab turned down offers of a meal (deli meat and pizza) and snacks, saying he had an upset stomach.

Many passengers slept through much of the routine flight. Others watched movies on screens built into the seats in front of them.

Abdulmutallab listened to music channels available on the jet's media service and stared at a map on the TV screen, silently tracking the plane's progress as it streaked toward Detroit.

A LOUD NOISE

Flight 253 glided across the skies above Ontario as the long, dull trip from Amsterdam entered its last hour. Laura Vincent, trying to rouse from a long nap, clicked on a movie. Melinda Dennis read a book. Alain Ghonda, who had cut a business trip to Ghana short so he could make it back to Maryland for his son's fifth birthday, bought a model airplane for his son and perfume for his daughter from an in-flight gift selection.

Abdulmutallab inched past Howard into the aisle. Linda Lammerts, sitting one row behind Abdulmutallab, saw him open the overhead compartment and rummage in a carry-on. Abdulmutallab clicked the compartment shut and carried a small bag to a bathroom in the front of the airplane.

The young man emerged from the bathroom after about 20 minutes. As he climbed past his seatmate, Lammerts picked up a strong odor. The man had doused himself in cologne while in the toilet.

How cute, she thought. She guessed the young man was meeting his girlfriend at the Detroit airport, and he wanted to smell good. But he had really overdone it.

Abdulmutallab climbed into his seat and pulled a blanket up to his chin.

Soon afterward, the Airbus A330 tilted forward as Flight 253 began its descent toward Detroit. Over the intercom, the pilot said there were 30 minutes until landing, and asked passengers to put up their tray tables and put their seats back in their upright positions.

At 11:38 a.m. Detroit time, Flight 253 passed into U.S. territory from Canada, heading toward Detroit from the northeast. Vincent, sitting three rows in front of Abdulmutallab, was happy to note the movie "Public Enemies" would finish before the plane landed.

The movie was reaching its violent climax when Vincent heard a noise loud enough to drown out the voice of Johnny Depp in her earphones.

It was 11:44 a.m., and the Airbus A330 was estimated to be about two miles over Grosse Pointe or east Detroit.

'FIRE! FIRE!'

Passengers throughout the midsection of the airplane stood up to investigate a noise some described as a popped balloon, others as a firecracker. A flight attendant, unable to locate the source, asked passengers to sit down and buckle up because the airplane was traveling through turbulence.

Howard could tell the noise was close. He asked his seatmate if he smelled smoke, but Abdulmutallab said nothing. The Nigerian still had the blanket pulled up to his chin, but something was different. Small wisps of smoke wafted from below the blanket.

Howard lifted the blanket, and a billow of smoke rose toward the ceiling and spread across nearby rows.

Abdulmutallab's hands were inside the front of his pants. Abdulmutallab pulled them out. Both hands were on fire.

Howard jumped into the aisle.

"Everyone freaked out," Howard said. "There was chaos."

Across the plane, Ghonda saw the smoke and shouted, "Fire! Fire!"

Thirteen-year-old Marijn Lammerts jumped up from her seat directly behind Abdulmutallab. Screaming, she scrambled to the aisle and climbed into the lap of her father, sitting one row behind.

Linda Lammerts, also sitting in the row behind the fire, ran toward a male flight attendant. Not knowing the English words for fire extinguisher, the Dutch native yelled "Foam! Foam!"Passengers seated near the fire bounded down the aisle to get away, while flight attendants dashed toward Row 19, creating a traffic jam.

On the other side of the wide-body plane in Row 18, Dutch video producer Jasper Schuringa jumped across the middle-row seats, bumping passengers out of the way to get to Abdulmutallab.

Schuringa snatched a flaming syringe out of Abdulmutallab's hands. Flames spreading to his own hands, Schuringa shook the syringe and threw it to the floor.

Ghonda and other passengers threw blankets and pillows across the cabin toward Row 19; other passengers passed bottles of water over the rows to pour on Abdulmutallab, who appeared to some to be in shock.

One man tried to pat out the flames with his leather hat, later complaining that his favorite headpiece was charred; a flight attendant handed a fire extinguisher to a business-class passenger, who shoved his way through the aisle to spray the Nigerian.

CHAOS SWIRLS

Amid the smoke and confusion, passengers weren't sure what had happened. The Lammerts family, occupying the two rows directly behind Abdulmutallab, thought the young man had lit a firecracker in a misguided attempt to celebrate Christmas. (After landing, the pilot told passengers the fire was caused by firecrackers.)

In the back section of the plane in Row 36, Richard Griffith figured someone was having a medical emergency; in the front section in Row 1, Melinda Dennis guessed there was an electrical fire.

Passengers didn't have to see the flames to be frightened. When a flight attendant ran past Row 40 muttering "Oh, my God! "Oh, my God!" Scotti Keepman flashed back to the waiting room at gate E-7 in Amsterdam, where she "had the willies" about the flight. Her family had just adopted two Ethiopian children to give them a better life in America, and now they could die before that life started.

Determined not to let them die frightened, Keepman tickled and poked 8-year-old Ytbarek and 6-year-old Arsema, telling the children who had never been on an airplane before that day that the running and screaming was a game the flight attendants played with passengers. The family held hands and sang the one English-language song the children knew, "Jesus Loves Me."

Rosenblith had watched "Up" and "Inglourious Basterds," and was rounding out the trip with "Land of the Lost" when he heard muffled cries of "fire."

This is how his life would end, Rosenblith thought, in coach class watching a Will Ferrell movie.

EERIE SILENCE

Something was strange about the way Abdulmutallab was acting. The young man was on fire, yet he stayed in his seat, motionless, not screaming or attempting to put out the flames. This was no accident, Schuringa thought, he'd tell media later. This man was trying to blow up the airplane.

Schuringa pulled Abdulmutallab's pants down to his ankles, looking for more bombs, then yanked the badly burned Nigerian out of his seat and shoved him to the aisle floor. One male passenger tried to attack the prone would-be terrorist, but was restrained by another man.

Three minutes after the loud pop, the flames were doused and Abdulmutallab was dragged to business class by Schuringa, the business class passenger and a male flight attendant. The Nigerian didn't speak or resist. "He looked like a zombie," said Shama Chopra. "His eyes were wide." Chopra, sitting in Row 4, recognized the young man limping toward the front of the plane with blue jeans around his ankles as the traveler who looked so nervous in Amsterdam.

Melinda Dennis was flying to Phoenix to spend the holiday with her fiancÚ, a staff sergeant in the Air Force who served a tour in Afghanistan fighting al-Qaida. She was reading the book "Business Stripped Bare" when the half-naked man was plopped into a seat across the aisle in Row 1.

No one seemed sure what to do with the man. The business-class passenger fumbled with a pair of plastic handcuffs he'd been given by a flight attendant. While the plane bucked in turbulence, the three men pulled off Abdulmutallab's pants, throwing them at the feet of Dennis. A Nigerian passport dropped into the aisle. They stripped off his shoes and socks and pulled Abdulmutallab's underwear down to his ankles. Schuringa ripped open Abdulmutallab's shirt, sending buttons flying across business class.

Schuringa returned to coach class, where he was greeted with applause. The business-class passenger who'd helped bring Abdulmutallab to the front of the airplane sat next to the Nigerian, pressing his hand against the alleged terrorist's white T-shirt so he couldn't move.

In a shaky voice, a flight attendant told passengers through the intercom that the situation was under control -- a message that passengers say made them more frightened.

Cleared for an emergency landing, the Airbus A330 dove toward Detroit Metro Airport. An emotionally exhausted flight attendant waved her hands to order passengers to sit down, then slumped against a wall.

Three minutes of chaos were followed by six minutes of jaw-clenching silence -- a hush that passengers from the front of business class to the back of coach remember lasting until the aircraft's wheels screeched against the tarmac at 11:53 a.m.

Marijn Lammerts couldn't return to her seat in Row 20 because it was soaked with water and fire extinguisher foam, so the young girl remained curled on her father's lap until landing.

Laura Vincent held hands with her seatmate, a middle-aged Indian woman with tears in her eyes. "It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK," Vincent told the woman.

"I kept repeating that all the way to the ground," Vincent said later, "partly to convince myself."

In the front of the plane, the man who tried to end the lives of 289 passengers and crew members sat motionless, a scene that struck Dennis as one of the strangest things about the incident. Underwear around his ankles, with severe burns on his thighs and groin, Abdulmutallab was calm and quiet, as if he were just another businessman flying into Des Moines, Iowa.

MOVING ON

After five hours quarantined together in a small area of McNamara Terminal while the bomb attempt was investigated, the passengers of Flight 253 split up. Some rushed to make connecting flights, some queued up to rebook travel, and others headed out the door with a coupon for a free hotel room and a $13 food voucher. Most learned they'd been the target of a terrorist attack only then, through CNN reports, frantic calls from relatives or a scrum of reporters gathered at the terminal.

What was supposed to be a sleepy eight-hour flight became a weeks-long ordeal for some passengers, as the holiday season dissolved into a blur of interviews, blog entries and sleepless nights.

The media labeled Schuringa a hero. Several days later, the same media labeled him a crass profiteer for selling a grainy cell phone image of Abdulmutallab. Rosenblith was called an Israeli spy by some online hate mail. Ghonda began taking sleeping pills to make it through the night without nightmares of exploding airplanes.

"On behalf of Delta Air Lines," began an e-mail to passengers from the parent company of Northwest, "I want to take this opportunity to express our concern for the inconvenience you experienced when there was a disturbance by another passenger as you approached Detroit on Flight 253 ... I understand how unsettling this event may have been for you."

For some, the $250 travel voucher for future flights offered by Delta seems inadequate for the terror they faced. Others believe their close brush with death was a reward in itself.

Dennis has made plans to leave her high-paying job in the Netherlands to be with her fiancÚ in the United States. The Christmas Day incident made her realize life shouldn't be measured by bank accounts, but by relationships. "If I knew I was going to die, would I have done things differently in the past year?" she said. "There's time lost on things that weren't a priority, time not spent with family."

When Rosenblith returned to Uganda in January, "the color of the trees, the landscape, everything seemed brighter and more alive," he said.

Abdulmutallab is in a federal prison in Michigan awaiting trial. Osama bin Laden took credit for the attack and warned that more like the young Nigerian are on the way.

"Maybe I should be cowering and afraid," Rosenblith said. "But in the days afterward, I had this newfound appreciation for life."

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