Flight 253: Heroic passengers were the thin line of defense

Written by Susan Mannella on .

For many of its 278 passengers, Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was a chance to make it home for Christmas. But as the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight was approaching its destination around noon Friday, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had other plans, according to federal authorities.

The 23-year-old Nigerian is charged with trying to blow up Flight 253 with chemicals that he said he had obtained from a bomb expert in Yemen with links to al-Qaida. While questions about the case remain to be answered, there was no mistaking what happened on the threatened aircraft Christmas Day.

Passenger intervention saved hundreds of lives that billions of dollars in security measures could not.

Travelers said that when the jet was about 20 minutes from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Mr. Abdulmutallab tried to ignite an incendiary powder mixture he had taped to his leg. One witness said it sounded like an exploding firecracker. There was smoke, a flash and fire. Commotion ensued as at least one passenger, Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director, intervened to avert disaster.

According to The New York Times, Mr. Schuringa "freaked" when he saw the fire, jumped over several seats to reach the suspect and attempted to put it out. In the process, he restrained Mr. Abdulmutallab, while other passengers assisted and flight attendants used extinguishers to put out the fire. Mr. Abdulmutallab then was escorted to the first-class area, where he was stripped, searched and handcuffed.

Airline passengers, particularly on U.S.-bound overseas flights, will now have to endure tighter airport scrutiny. Fliers on subsequent trips reported being barred from getting out of their seats for the last hour of flight. Others said they were not allowed to put anything over their laps (which might conceal an explosive).

Yet by now everyone knows that Mr. Abdulmutallab's name was placed in a database of suspected international terrorists last month, after his father, a prominent Nigerian banker, told the U.S. Embassy that his son was showing extremist views. The man's name never made the shorter "no fly" list. President Barack Obama was right to order a review of the nation's homeland security network for why costly anti-terrorist measures failed to thwart the alleged plans of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

There is no reason for the United States to let down its guard, but in this case the lifesaving credit goes to fast-acting passengers and crew members. Otherwise, Flight 253 would have become another ill-fated ride emblazoned in the nation's history.

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