Quick acting passengers subdue man who tried to open jetliner door in air
DENVER – Passengers aboard a United Airlines flight had some help when they had to take matters into their own hands to prevent Jose Manuel Pelayo-Ortega from bringing their plane down.Three Secret Service agents who were headed west to join President Bush’s entourage joined with passengers to subdue Pelayo-Ortega when he tried to open one of the doors on the Airbus A-320.”Had he opened the door, we’d all be dead,” passenger Donna Bell of Visalia, Calif., told the Sacramento Bee after the plane was searched and allowed to continue westward.Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahen said three agents between assignments helped detain Pelayo-Ortega, who was taken off the plane after it made an emergency landing in Denver.”That saved us,” Ian Grossman of Chicago told the Bee. “You don’t know what will happen if a guy like that is loose in the cabin.”The Bee reported that passenger Joe Peña, a senior airman at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., described the incident as like a bar fight. “I heard a bunch of commotion, and I heard somebody yell ‘What are you doing’ and ‘Get down,’ then I saw the guy put into a chokehold, put on his back and pinned down so he couldn’t move,” Peña said in Sacramento, after hugging his tearful wife, Candy.While Pelayo-Ortega was being detained, two F-16 fighter jets from Buckley Air Force Base east of Denver scrambled to intercept the plane, which carried 138 passengers and six crew. Had the plane “been judged as a threat by the highest levels of our government, they could make the decision to have the plane shot down,” said Lt. Commander Sean Kelly, a spokesman for NORAD, a U.S.-Canadian military command based outside Colorado Springs that monitors missiles, aircraft and space objects and warns of threats.The policy was put in place after Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush would ultimately make the decision.Authorities said Pelayo-Ortega – whose age and hometown were not immediately released – tried to open a door on the Airbus A-320 en route from Chicago to Sacramento, and then claimed to have a bomb, forcing the emergency landing in Denver.A “shoot-don’t shoot” scenario didn’t develop because the plane was following all FAA instructions. One of the last resorts would have included the fighter pilots either talking to or attempting to talk to the pilot of the airliner, which didn’t happen Friday, Kelly saidThe fighter jets out of Buckley Air Force Base east of Denver “followed to make sure nothing untoward was going to happen,” Kelly said.Since Sept. 11, fighters have been scrambled or, if already airborne, diverted 2,300 times, said Kelly. The Transportation Security Administration said it did not have numbers on how many flights have been diverted.Pelayo-Ortega was in a Denver jail awaiting federal charges. FBI spokeswoman Monique Kelso said he will be charged on Monday. She did not return a call Saturday seeking details.Kelso said authorities searched the aircraft for explosives and re-screened luggage as well as the passengers before they were allowed to re-board the plane, which left for its original destination at about 7:30 p.m.
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