Video: Plane scare smoker returning to Qatar

  1. Transcript of: Plane scare smoker returning to Qatar

    WILLIAMS: Good evening.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: First reports that a man from a Middle Eastern tried to set off a shoe bomb from a flight last night from Washington to Denver . First reports are often wrong and so was this one, but it triggered a massive scare that spread through the flying skies across the country. Fighter jets were scrambled, passengers were frozen in place. In the end there was no bomb, just a combination of wrongdoing on the part of the passenger and a misunderstanding in the post-9/11 era of zero tolerance in our skies. Our report on what did happen from our justice correspondent Pete Williams . He's where the flight originated at National Airport in Washington . Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian , it happened on an United Airlines flight that took off from here at Reagan National Airport . The trouble began when a passenger tried to sneak a smoke on board and then made a flippant and very unfortunate remark. It was a harrowing night for 157 passengers aboard a United Airlines flight , though it ended safely.

    Unidentified Man: It was quite an inconvenience but better than a tragedy.

    P. WILLIAMS: Flight 663, a 757 like this one, was well on its way, about an hour from a scheduled stop in Denver before going on to Las Vegas , when a passenger in first class spent a long time in the bathroom. Federal investigators say when he came out, a flight attendant smelled smoke and notified two federal air marshals on board . They questioned the man, 27-year-old Mohammed Al - Madadi from the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar , assigned to its embassy in Washington . He was on official business to check on the treatment of a federal prisoner, Ali Al-Marri , convicted last year of being an al-Qaeda sleeper agent in the US. When Al-Madadi was asked about his smoking in the bathroom, officials say, he replied sarcastically that he was, quote , "Trying to light my shoe on fire," and refused to give up his lighter. Taking no chances, the pilot sent an emergency message and the FAA immediately relayed warnings to other planes in the air, recorded by the Web site

    Offscreen Voice: Be advised, a US air carrier has reported a passenger has attempted to ignite his shoes on fire. All pilots are to maintain extra vigilance and report any anomalies immediately.

    P. WILLIAMS: Passengers on other flights were told to stay seated and to put everything away. CNBC 's Scott Cohn , flying last night on Continental to New Jersey , says the pilot gave more than one warning.

    SCOTT COHN reporting: He came back on and said, `I just want to reiterate, you're not allowed to have anything on your laps, that -- and especially cell phones and computers. And if we find anything on your lap, I will divert the flight .'

    P. WILLIAMS: And two F-16 fighter jets , like these, were scrambled to escort the United flight . Al- Madadi , who was wearing sandals, was searched but no explosives were found. A frequent critic of the Department of Homeland Security says the government's response was just right.

    Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): The air marshals from all that I know did exactly the right thing, and what he did was absolutely stupid and irresponsible.

    P. WILLIAMS: The Justice Department has decided not to file charges, which would have been legally complicated because Al-Madadi has diplomatic immunity , but Qatar has agreed to send him packing back home by tomorrow. Brian :

    B. WILLIAMS: Pete Williams at National Airport starting us off. Pete , thanks.

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