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Plane Escorted to Boston by Two F-15s After Passenger Tried to Ignite Explosives Concealed in His Shoes

Aired December 22, 2001 - 20:32   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: A remarkable story we've been following all afternoon. All 185 passengers on board an American Airlines flight that was flying from Paris to Miami are safe after a passenger has now been detained by the FBI and is being questioned after he tried to set his shoes on fire, allegedly to set off some explosives hidden inside those shoes.

That plane was escorted by two F-15's to Logan International Airport in Boston, and that is where we find CNN's Bill Delaney standing by, covering this story -- Bill.

BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Carol. Yes, a dramatic and disturbing interruption to flight 63 American Airlines from Paris, supposed to fly to Miami this afternoon. Instead, as you said, diverted here to Boston's Logan Airport, escorted by F-15 fighter jets after one of the 185 passengers and 12 crew on this plane was discovered with C4 explosive, or something like it, in his shoes.

Now, what happened was, a flight attendant smelled something sulphury. She went down to row 29, asked the passenger there what he was doing. He was holding a match in the vicinity of his shoes and said, "I am wired."

Now, it's not clear precisely what the sequence of events after that was, but there was a confrontation. Passengers and flight attendants overpowering this man, two flight attendants injured in the melee, one of them bitten. Two doctors on the plane managing to subdue the man with tranquilizers.

Now, the man described as a tall man, 6-foot-4 inches, one passenger saying he appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent, but we do not have any more information as to whether he was of Middle Eastern decent.

What we can say is that he was carrying a British passport with the very un-Middle Eastern sounding name of Richard Reid, a passport apparently issued three weeks ago in Belgium. This passenger traveling alone, without luggage, now in custody of the FBI in a barracks not far from where I'm standing, about 200 yards from where I'm standing, outside terminal E at Boston's Logan Airport.

Outside that police barracks here, there is an ambulance and we have had word that the passenger, this man with the explosives in his shoes, may shortly be taken to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Now, whether he could have set the explosive off, hard to say. What we can say is that C4 is a devastating explosive. It's what blew up the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American servicemen and women back in June of 1996.

But as explosive and intense as C4 can be, you have to detonate it. You have to set it off. Now, his shoes apparently had wires dangling from them, but you need a blasting cap, a detonator, an electric blasting cap to set this stuff off. Now, it's possible a security expert told me shortly ago, to set a detonator off by heating it. Some of those detonators will go off with heat. He could have conceivably, the security expert suggested to me, have been trying to ignite the detonator with the match. But a lot of things still unclear about this incident.

The passengers, still here in Boston, unclear when they will go on to Miami, which was supposed to be their destination on flight 63 before today's incident -- Carol.

LIN: Yeah, a long night ahead for those passengers.

Bill, I'm just wondering, let's say this substance inside the shoe was in fact C4 explosives or some sort of explosive device; both major airports in Paris, where this flight originated from, have very heavy security, much more so than we Americans are even used to, and in fact a lot of passengers have to go through body searches even to get through security.

Is there any sort of theory as to how this man was able to get through airport security and get on this flight?

DELANEY: Well, you can be sure officials in Paris, of course, are scrambling to try to sort that out right now, but C4 is an explosive that comes in bricks. You could, apparently, from what I've been able to glean from security experts I've spoken to in the past hour or two, you could conceivably chop some of it up and put it in your shoe, and try to explode it.

It would not be picked up, obviously, by metal detectors. And I don't know, we all go through security check points now, when was the last time somebody checked your shoes?

LIN: Yeah. Good point.

DELANEY: Who knows.

LIN: Good point. All right. Thank you very much. Bill Delaney, reporting live at Logan International Airport.

As we mentioned earlier, as soon as the passengers and the flight attendant tackled this suspect in row 29 of that flight, the U.S. government was notified that there was trouble on this plane, and two F-15's were scrambled to escort this American Airlines jet and divert it to Boston. We have Jeff Levine standing by at the Pentagon. Jeff, when were the F-15's notified? Was the American Airlines jet over water at the time, over the Atlantic?

JEFF LEVINE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Carol, that's a very good question. I don't think anybody has the answer, at least they're not responding with an answer right now. I'm sure details of this will come out in the next hours and the next days.

I think what we can say is that we're living in a whole new world of security here in the United States. The U.S. military is providing aerial surveillance over 20 U.S. cities, particularly New York and Washington are under U.S. military surveillance 24 hours a day.

Now, the planes that responded to the American Airline situation were F-15's, as you said. These are air superiority aircraft. They fly at super-sonic speed. They are all-weather aircraft and they are among the premiere air combat machines in the U.S. arsenal. So, obviously, they're prepared for any situation.

Now, one of the things that has occurred is that the defense side of the equation and the civilian side, that is the Pentagon and the FAA, are in touch with each other 24 hours a day via a hotline. So, if a situation comes up, like this one, the Pentagon, the folks at NORAD, that's the North American Aerospace Defense Command, can respond right away.

And I think that there's some interesting things that have occurred that really focus on this security situation. If you look back a year ago, let's say to the period between September and October, there were seven intercepts, according to Major Thomas, a spokesman for NORAD. Now, in the month following the 9-11 situation, we've had 90 intercepts, and there have been many intercepts since that time.

Now, were all of these serious threats? Obviously, they were not. But they were serious enough so that pilots responded in one way or another. They have a couple of ways that they can respond. For example, if it's a so-called "scramble," Carol, the pilots are on the ground. They hear a Klaxon horn. They get in their aircraft. They take to the skies and they intercept the plane.

If it's a, quote, "diversion," the aircraft, the military aircraft are already airborne. They intercept the plane, and then they escort it to a safe location, and then they evaluate the situation from there.

Ultimately, many questions need to be worked out. I think we can all be grateful that this is a happy ending at the moment. But, we don't know, obviously, where the plane was intercepted, how close it got to U.S. airspace, what some of the issues were in terms of security. But I think we can say that the U.S. has taken, as Major Thomas says, a no-risk approach to homeland security, to the skies over the United States in this new terrorist atmosphere.

Carol, back to you. LIN: So, Jeff, you're saying 90 intercepts since 9-11.


LIN: That is really a high number it sounds like, to me.

LEVINE: It's good -- it's a high number. It doesn't necessarily mean, again, we don't want to be overly alarmist. It's a number which is significant. It doesn't mean that all these incidents were over a very threatening nature, but it means that there is increased vigilance. I think really that's the point.

LIN: Right. That's a good point. So, are you saying that people have just a greater sensitivity, or did they raise the bar, in other words, to call out the F-15's to respond? Because I can't imagine that it would be a routine maneuver to send an F-15 to check out a situation with a civilian passenger jet.

LEVINE: Carol, absolutely. The bar has been raised to a new level, and Pentagon officials and NORAD officials feel it has to be raised to a new level given the threat that has -- not only the threat, but the reality of 9-11 that has taken place and the threat that is existing worldwide against the United States and other countries.

So, they're not taking any chances. They're acting a way that they feel is appropriate.

LIN: Yeah, I'm wondering, OK, a guy setting his shoes on fire and claiming that he's got explosives is a pretty good reason to scramble an F-15. What would be the lowest threshold to send out a military fighter jet to respond to a passenger jet?

LEVINE: Well, I think those sorts of things are, in effect, either secret, confidential, or not revealed. I don't think the military wants to broadcast its threat threshold. But I think as we've discussed, what happens is that if it appears that, let's say, that a plane is off-course, that a helicopter isn't where it should be, that a radio transmission doesn't make sense, that an altitude is lower than it ought to be, that it's higher than it ought to be, those things might trigger an index of suspicion, let's say, that wouldn't have prompted a response a year ago, but would have today.

LIN: Right. Right. Anything unusual. All right. Thank you very much.

LEVINE: Thank you.

LIN: Jeff Levine reporting live from the Pentagon. We'll see you later on this evening. Thank you very much for joining us.




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