Everything was normal Friday at Detroit Wayne County Airport right up until federal agents descended on McNamara Terminal. That began a long day of confusion, frustration and fatigue for dozens of people waiting for loved ones arriving on international flights.
The agents burst onto the scene amid reports that a man claiming ties al-Qaida had tried to light a powder aboard a Northwest Air Lines flight from Amsterdam — an incident that federal officials eventually characterized as a serious attempt to pull of a terrorist attack on Christmas Day.
“I asked some people from security around here, and they gave me a very, very brief answer,” said Dumitru Ioneseu, who was waiting to collect his wife, a passenger on the plane. “‘It’s a security reason,’” he said they told him. “They cannot tell me any more than that.”
Dawn Griffith, who was there waiting for her husband, said she didn’t know what was going on, but she got a clue when she saw a young man, his bandaged hands handcuffed to the railings, being wheeled away under heavy guard on a bed or gurney. Authorities identified the alleged attacker as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a Nigerian student.
“I’m just concerned about my husband being back there,” Griffith said.
Things were a little more exciting aboard the plane, where Syed Jafri, a U.S. citizen who was flying from the United Arab Emirates, was seated three rows behind Abdulmutallab. As the plane began its descent into the Detroit airport, Jafri said, he saw a glow and noticed the smell of smoke.
Then, Jafri said, “a young man behind me jumped on him.”
“Next thing you know, there was a lot of panic,” he said.
Rich Griffith, a passenger from Pontiac, Mich., said he was seated too far in the back to see what had happened. But he said he didn’t mind being having been detained on the plane for several hours.
“It’s frustrating [only] if you don’t want to keep your country safe,” he said. “We can’t have what’s going on everywhere else happening here.”
Inside the airport, some frustrated folks were less patient as airport officials briefly halted all international flights.
“I don’t understand why, if there’s a problem on one flight, they’re holding up all the other flights,” said Roberto Viviano, who was waiting for his son. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Meanwhile, the swarm of officers on the isolated runway where the plane was taken for safety created an unusual tableau for people outside the airport, who hadn’t yet heard what was going on.
“I don’t ever recall seeing a plane on that runway ever before, and I pass by there frequently,” said J.P. Karas, 55, of Wyandotte, Mich., who was driving down a road near the airport when he spotted the jet, surrounded by police cars, an ambulance, a bus and some TV trucks.