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Passengers recall tense moments before gunfire

The man shot to death by air marshals in Miami had been agitated before boarding the plane and was singing “Go Down Moses” as his wife tried to calm him, a fellow passenger said Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The passenger shot to death by air marshals in Miami had been agitated before boarding the plane and was singing “Go Down Moses” as his wife tried to calm him, a fellow passenger said Thursday.

“The wife was telling him, ‘Calm down. Let other people get on the plane. It will be all right,”’ said Alan Tirpak.

“I thought, ‘Maybe he’s afraid of flying,’” Tirpak said.

Tirpak took his seat, and Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, and his wife eventually boarded the plane. Then, a few minutes before the plane was to pull away, Alpizar bolted up the aisle and onto the jetway, where two air marshals confronted him.

“He was belligerent. He threatened that he had a bomb in his backpack,” said Brian Doyle, spokesman for the U.S. Homeland Security Department. “The officers clearly identified themselves and yelled at him to ‘get down, get down.’ Instead, he made a move toward the backpack.”

Agents are trained to shoot to stop a threat, and the situation on the jetway at Miami International Airport Wednesday appeared to pose one, said John Amat, a deputy with the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan also said Thursday that the two air marshals appeared to have acted properly when they shot to kill.

“I don’t think anyone wants it to come to a situation like this, but these marshals appear to have acted in a way consistent with the extensive training they have received,” McClellan said. “We’ll see what the investigation shows.”

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told NBC News he, too, was waiting for the investigations to conclude.

“I think it's too early to tell whether or not all the appropriate protocols were followed,” he said.

Air marshals on administrative leave
Both air marshals were hired in 2002 from other federal law enforcement agencies and are now on administrative leave, as is routine, Doyle said. Miami-Dade Police were investigating the shooting, and the medical examiner’s office was performing an autopsy on Alpizar. Officials say there was no bomb and they found no connection to terrorism.

Alpizar’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Jentsch, read a short statement from the family Thursday describing him as “a loving, gentle and caring husband, uncle, son and friend.” He was from Costa Rica but became a U.S. citizen several years ago, she said.

“We’re all still in shock,” said another sister-in-law, Kelley Buechner, in a telephone interview from her home in Milwaukee. “We’re just speechless.”

The statement did not address Alpizar’s mental condition. Other passengers have said Alpizar’s wife, Anne Buechner, said he was bipolar, a disorder formerly known as manic-depression.

She was yelling “That’s my husband, that’s my husband — I need to get to my husband!” Mary Gardner said. “She said, ‘My husband is bipolar. He didn’t take his medicine.”’

Mike Beshears heard her say, “’My husband is sick. I’ve got to get my bags.”’ Then the shots rang out, and a flight attendant stopped her and guided her to a seat, he said.

“She was very apologetic,” Beshears said of Alpizar’s wife. “She was explaining to us as we sat there in the row. She felt it was her fault, that she had convinced him to get on board, that he wasn’t ready.”

Buechner did not speak publicly Thursday. She works for the Council on Quality and Leadership based in Towson, Md., a nonprofit organization focused on improving life for people with disabilities and mental illness, the organization said in a statement.

Neighbors said the couple had been returning to their home in the Orlando suburb of Maitland from a missionary trip to Ecuador.

Charles Baez, manager of the MAB Paints store in Orlando where Alpizar worked for 12 years until taking a job at Home Depot, described him as a health enthusiast who was always calm and patient with customers. He said he never saw evidence of any mental problems.

“He was a quiet, reserved gentleman,” Baez said Thursday. “It’s very bizarre to me that he would do anything like that.”