Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
A Vallejo man holding a Yemeni passport tried to break into the locked cockpit of an American Airlines flight bound for San Francisco before crew members and passengers, including two retired law enforcement officers, were able to subdue him, authorities said Monday.
Rageh Ahmed Mohammed Al-Murisi, 28, who was carrying a California identification card in addition to his Yemeni passport, was wrestled to the floor of the Boeing 737 near the end of the four-hour flight Sunday night. He was charged in U.S. District Court in San Francisco with interfering with a flight crew and is scheduled to appear in court today with an Arabic interpreter.
Al-Murisi, 28, suffered minor injuries as a result of being tackled, but no one else was injured, and flight safety was not compromised, authorities said.
San Francisco airport police Sgt. Michael Rodriguez said it's not clear what Al-Murisi had in mind and that the suspect had no known ties to terrorism.
The incident began about 8:50 p.m. when American Airlines Flight 1561, carrying 156 passengers and six crew members from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, was about a half hour from landing at San Francisco International Airport, authorities said.
Al-Murisi, described as a burly man, got up from his seat near the back of the plane and "walked briskly" toward the front, where he began yelling and tried to open the cockpit door by turning the handle, police and witnesses said.
"He was walking very fast all the way up to the front," said Angelina Marty, 35, of San Francisco, a passenger on the plane. "He kept walking faster and faster and faster. He was screaming something, and the lady in the row across from me who had spoken Arabic said, 'That's Arabic,' and she had translated it and said it was roughly, 'God is great.' "
Marty said Al-Murisi had approached the cockpit right after the pilot announced that the flight was within a half hour of arriving in San Francisco.
"It wasn't innocent at all, the way he was screaming and how quickly he was walking," Marty said. "You knew he was going to do something. It was by far the scariest thing I've ever been through."
A flight attendant thought Al-Murisi was looking for the bathroom and told him where it was, but Al-Murisi looked at the attendant and then "lowered his left shoulder and rammed the cockpit door," federal air marshal Paul Howard wrote in a court affidavit. The flight attendant got between the door and Al-Murisi, who "kept yelling and pushing forward in an attempt to open the cockpit door," Howard wrote.
Another flight attendant and several passengers - including a retired Secret Service agent, a retired San Mateo police officer and an off-duty American Airlines pilot - helped wrestle Al-Murisi to the floor, officials said.
Al-Murisi was placed in plastic handcuffs and put in a seat near the front of the plane for the rest of the flight, authorities said. The plane landed without incident in San Francisco about 9 p.m. and taxied to Terminal 2, where airport police took custody of him.
Before getting onboard the San Francisco-bound flight, Al-Murisi had flown into Chicago on a separate American Airlines flight from LaGuardia Airport in New York, airline spokesman Tim Smith said.
Smith added, "It's important to emphasize that, as always, the cockpit door was fully locked, and there was no likelihood of any breach."
Cockpit doors were fortified after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, in which hijackers armed with box cutters gained control of four jetliners.
Sunday's incident comes at a time of heightened concern that terrorists might try to strike at the United States in retaliation for the U.S. killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2.
Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is home to one of the most active branches of al Qaeda. The group, whose leaders include Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, is thought to have been behind two attempts to bomb U.S.-bound aircraft since 2009.