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American Airlines Flight en Route to Miami Diverted to Boston When Man Tried to Ignite Explosives Hidden in His Shoe

Aired December 22, 2001 - 17:59   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: We begin now with breaking news out of Boston's Logan Airport. An incredible moment this afternoon for an American Airlines flight. A passenger apparently tried to light a makeshift explosive that was hidden in his shoes. The plane was flying from Paris to Miami, and put down in Boston, after passengers and flight attendants subdued the man, and a doctor on board sedated the passenger and strapped him to a seat.

FBI bomb teams met the plane at Logan, removed the device and destroyed it in a grassy area near the runway. Agents say that the suspect's shoes contained enough explosive to do serious damage, and authorities at Logan talked about the incident.


TOM KINTON, AVIATION DIRECTOR, LOGAN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: The aircraft is still here. It is isolated. It will be gone over with a fine-tooth comb -- interior search, as well as all of the luggage and all of the passengers are being detained at this point and time for further questioning as well. We're told by the bomb (ph) teams on board that this obviously if it indeed is an improvised explosive that there certainly enough there to do sufficient damage to an aircraft and flight certainly.


CALLAWAY: Now the man apparently carried a British passport with the name Richard Reid, but authorities doubt that it is a legitimate passport. He was traveling alone, and he had no checked luggage. Certainly the Bush administration aware of the situation -- let's go to now to CNN's Kelly Wallace who's standing by at the White House. What's the latest from there Kelly?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well Catherine, definitely well aware -- the White House has been monitoring this situation. We are told the FBI, the lead investigative agency now on this case, and we just got off the phone with a special agent out of the Boston office for the FBI who said -- who would basically not say too much, but could say that the American Airlines flight headed from Paris to Miami was diverted to Boston.

This official telling us that the FBI office in Boston has one person in custody for -- quote -- "interference with a flight crew". The official saying that the Massachusetts State Police is currently assisting the FBI in the matter. No other information being released at this time because in the words of this official, it is an ongoing investigation.

This official not confirming what we heard from those aviation officials during that news conference that this gentleman apparently had explosives in his shoes. Now we also talked to an official as well within the administration who said that of course the White House definitely monitoring this matter. President Bush is at the presidential retreat at Camp David. We are awaiting call to find out when exactly the president was informed of this and when the Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge was informed.

We do know from one U.S. official, of course, we know that F-15 jets did escort the plane to Boston's airport and we do know, according to one official that this official believes the planes intercepted that American Airlines flight as soon as it hit American airspace, and Catherine, you might recall President Bush was in the Oval Office just yesterday talking to reporters. He was asked if he believed the United States safer now than before the September 11th attacks.

He said he believed definitely the United States safer, but he said it not totally -- it was not totally safe and he talked about how the United States has decided to continue to have these combat air patrols flying in the skies throughout the country to do everything possible to prevent an attack such as the one we saw -- the ones we saw on September 11th. So clearly F-15 jets in the air intercepting this plane and escorting it to Boston's airport. Catherine, that's the latest from here.

CALLAWAY: Yes. Kelly, the president has to be deeply concerned about so close to a tragedy happening once again involving U.S. airlines.

WALLACE: Without a doubt. Again, I just want to caution we're trying to wait for more information, of course, from the officials doing the investigation. We certainly know the White House situation were monitoring developments -- White House officials certainly monitoring the situation closely, no doubt.

We can speculate President Bush well aware and informed of this matter -- certainly Tom Ridge likely to be informed, and very, very concerned. But of course you do see as we learn more facts about this, clearly good action by flight attendants, by passengers, possibly may have prevented something very, very serious from taking place. And again, these are all things -- all lessons learned; all new training; all new kind of attention to what's going on around you that is now taking place both on planes and around planes and on the ground after the September 11th attacks.

But again, details still coming in. The word we're getting, the FBI definitely the lead investigative agency now -- that this one person -- they're not releasing his name, in custody and right now they're saying for -- quote -- "interference with the flight crew". That's all they're saying at this point Catherine. CALLAWAY: And it seems appropriate Kelly, we just heard the president say once again that Americans need to remain vigilant and cautious in the current situation -- right?

WALLACE: Absolutely. You know there is certainly a concern Catherine that the more we move away from the September 11th attacks and after the administration, as we know, has issued a series of alerts about the possibility of another terrorist attack happening in the U.S. or against American interest abroad -- if nothing happens, that Americans might sort of let down their guard and become more complacent.

We know that the FBI issued a recent alert not too long ago, and extended it through the holiday period -- definite concern on the part of law enforcement officials. Officials here at the White House as well, as you have the Christmas holiday approaching; as you have the New Year holiday approaching; the possibility that terrorists could retaliate for the military action going on in Afghanistan.

So the message continues to be Americans should be vigilant. The president was pretty much -- putting that message out yesterday when he said he thinks the country's safer, but is it totally safe? He said no and Catherine, he said his main worry as he goes to the Oval Office everyday and looks at the threat assessments to U.S. interest and to Americans in the United States is doing everything he can to prevent another attack -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: All right, CNN's Kelly Wallace at the White House. We should tell everyone that it was an alert flight attendant who apparently smelled sulfur from a burning match -- the individual apparently trying to light the explosive device. If it had not been for that alert flight attendant, who knows what would have happened. Thank you Kelly.

We did confirm that U.S. military officials say that two F-15 fighter jets did scramble into the sky in response to this incident on board the American jet. Let's go right to CNN's Jeff Levine who's standing by at the Pentagon with more on this. Hello, Jeff.

JEFF LEVINE, CNN PENTAGON: Hello Catherine. That's correct, the North American airspace defense command does confirm to CNN that F-15 fighters were either in the skies or sent aloft to intercept this American Airlines flight that was bound from Paris to Miami. The F-15 is what is described as an air superiority plane.

It's been in the U.S. Arsenal for about 30 years, and I think it's safe to say that the F-15 and its various alterations is probably capable of handling virtually anything from dog fights to direct aircraft to land, bomb assaults. So no doubt when the military officials sent the F-15 up to meet this American Airlines flight, they were prepared to do whatever that was necessary to maintain the safety and integrity of U.S. airspace.

And I think it's worthwhile to point out a couple of things, that this is an extraordinary event. Mercifully, this doesn't happen every day, but according to officials -- military officials, they have conducted through December 11th some 92 scrambles of -- to intercept aircraft or at least to take a look at various situations. Fighters have been on alert that number of times.

One hundred and fifteen diversions from fighters already flying combat controls -- all of that in response to requests from the FAA. So I think it's safe to say that the U.S. military is certainly on high alert -- will be even on higher alert as a result of this situation Catherine. But it's an ongoing process and I think that's the point that's important to make -- that what happened today as an example of how the U.S. military can respond in a critical situation.

But that kind of vigilance is needed on an hour-by-hour basis, on a day-by-day basis. Also I think we should point out that Washington and New York City, in particular, are under 24-hour aerial surveillance as a result of what happened on September 11th. So obviously U.S. military officials on very high alert in general following the tragedies of September 11th and in particular as the holiday season is upon us, they want to make sure, if they can, that nothing like this happens again -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: And Jeff, before we leave you, did the Pentagon say at what point the F-15 joined the American Airlines jet?

LEVINE: We don't know that, and I think that's a key question. We want to find that out -- where that intercept or that escort actually occurred. Did it occur as the plane was crossing into U.S. airspace or was it further out in the -- into the Atlantic? Those are interesting questions.

Obviously U.S. fighters want to make sure that they give people on any aircraft every opportunity to make sure that they can respond to the situation before they have to intervene. So in the coming hours and days, we hope to get a more complete answer as to where that intercept occurred -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: All right, CNN's Jeff Levine at the Pentagon. Thank you Jeff.

LEVINE: Thank you.

CALLAWAY: We want to go now to CNN's Darius Walker. He is a CNNFN vice president. He's at Logan Airport -- has been with all this going on. Darius, can you hear me?


CALLAWAY: I'm fine. Thank you. Can you tell me exactly what is going on now at the airport?

WALKER: Well I just talked to Phil Olandella (ph). He's a spokesperson for LAST (ph), which is the authority that oversees Logan Airport here, and here's what he had to tell me. Flight 63 was headed from Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport to Miami and over the Atlantic a passenger wanted -- tried to light up a cigarette, to have a smoke. The flight attendant told the passenger no -- the flight attendant went away; she smelled sulfur; she returned to that passenger; and saw him trying to light a match.

She tried to stop him. They got into an altercation and the passenger -- several passengers that were on board helped subdue him, along with the flight attendant. In that altercation, the suspect allegedly bit the flight attendant also. Now we're also told that two doctors were on board and once they had the passenger down, the two doctors gave him a sedative. Once they did that, they said that they may have thought -- and I underline may, have saw wires protruding from this passenger's shoe.

Now the suspect we're told had a U.K. passport. We're not told much more about the suspect right now. There were 185 passengers and 12 crew members on board this 767, which landed at Logan Airport about 12:50 p.m. this afternoon. Now the passengers themselves are isolated right now here at Logan Airport -- they're being interviewed by the FBI.

The FBI is now in charge of the case here and the INS is also dealing with the passengers and checking passports of the suspect and other passengers. Right now that's all we know. We do not know -- the airport was not shut down. We do not know if that plane will be leaving or if they're going to put people on a -- another plane to go -- to continue to Miami. But right now they're being questioned by the FBI and if we get any more, we'll pass it on to you.

CALLAWAY: Darius, let me ask you, we understand that the runway, of course, where the plane was, was shut down. Did that affect the traffic there at Logan? Certainly ...


CALLAWAY: ... a busy weekend.

WALKER: That was just for a short time. They moved to the plane, as I said, to an isolated area so it's not impeding any runway traffic right now, and it looks like things are running pretty smoothly here at Logan Airport.

CALLAWAY: One hundred and eighty-five passengers now you said have been cordoned off into a different area of the airport -- is that what you said?

WALKER: Yes. They won't tell us exactly where they are, but they say -- quote -- "they're in an isolated area". And of course we do not have access to them because they are being questioned by the FBI right now.

CALLAWAY: This is an incredibly frightening story Darius. What are other passengers there at the airport saying about this? Has word spread about what happened?

WALKER: Well surprisingly there isn't a lot of talk about it because they've been able to keep it in such an isolated area in the American Airlines area. So it really hasn't spread to other parts of the airport. Myself, I came in on the Delta shuttle from New York and didn't know much about it until I talked to one person there that I know from CNN who told me about it, and that's when I went to try to find some information. But surprisingly there's not a lot of panic and passengers are going about their business, heading out for their holiday travels.

CALLAWAY: All right, CNN's Darius Walker joining us from Logan Airport with the situation there. Thank you Darius.

We're going to go now to General Wesley Clark who is in Little Rock now and talk a little bit about General, the two F-15 fighter jets that scrambled into the skies to escort this jet to Logan Airport -- had to act very quickly.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, (RET.) CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That's right, and this is part of the capability of the United States Air Force and the International Guard -- the men and women who are detailed to this duty. They keep some aircraft airborne. They have others on strip alert and they are capable of responding to an emergency call such as this.

CALLAWAY: Tell us about the capabilities of the F-15 fighter jets and what could they possibly have done in a situation like this?

CLARK: Well it's a super sonic air superiority fighter. It goes more than twice the speed of sound. It has very, very powerful engines. It can climb straight up in the sky when it takes off, if it puts its afterburners on. It can move super sonic for a short period of time, and it has long range. It has -- it has air-to-air missiles and that's primarily what an air superiority fighter does. It intercepts other aircraft.

So what the aircraft could do in this case is they could -- they could move up to this aircraft. They could actually get close enough to do it -- if it's flying in stable flight, they can get close enough to it and look inside the cockpit. They could see if there's any problem inside the cockpit. They could look for gestures from the pilot or copilot or something like this. And obviously -- and as they -- as they were prepared to do on the 11th of September, they could in last resort, if given the instructions to do so, take measures against the aircraft, if it was judged a threat to the United States.

CALLAWAY: If it was heading somewhere.

CLARK: Right.

CALLAWAY: Tell me about where you think these F-15 fighter jets, perhaps joined this jet, where they left and where they could have been based knowing where this jet was coming from. We know it was from Paris heading to Miami and was diverted to Boston.

CLARK: Well they could have joined it fairly far out at sea. They certainly have the capacity to do an intercept several hundred miles off the shore of the United States or if it was on the traditional route, it would have been flying down over -- probably over the tip of Greenland and then down over New Brunswick and down toward Maine. So they may have joined it right outside Canadian airspace, let's say. And they would have -- they would have stayed with it until it was safely down, as we saw in the -- in the tape of Logan Airport.

CALLAWAY: We heard CNN's Jeff Levine tell us at the Pentagon just a few moments ago that some 92 interceptions have happened since all of this began. I didn't realize that the U.S. military was so active in the homeland security when it comes to getting the F-15s involved and flights over the U.S.

CLARK: Well we've always had an air defense responsibility, but with the end of the Cold War, of course, this took back burner, frankly, and there was a lot of pressure on -- inside the armed forces and inside the Air Force to reduce this mission. It became transferred to the National Guard. But after the -- after the 11th of September, then we put a lot more emphasis into this and obviously our leaders don't want to take any chances on this. Our airmen are ready to go and have gone on a number of occasions as we heard.

CALLAWAY: You surprised at all they were able to get there so quickly?

CLARK: No. I think that's exactly what we would expect. We -- you know, given the instructions -- given the clear direction to do this, we're very, very good.

CALLAWAY: All right, General Wesley Clark, thanks for joining us in Little Rock this evening.


CALLAWAY: Want to bring you the latest on a breaking story that we've been bringing to you this afternoon about an American Airlines Flight, number 63, on its way from Paris to Miami, had to be diverted to Boston because a man was found on the plane to be wearing shoes with explosive devices inside. An alert flight attendant smelled sulfur from a burning match, caught the man apparently trying to light the device. The flight attendant wrestled with the man; other flight attendants involved in that scuffle; and passengers -- the heroes in this incident.

In fact, one of the flight attendants was bitten by the man. The plane was escorted by two F-15 fighter jets to Boston's Logan Airport where the man was apparently taken into custody by the FBI. This happened about 1:00 Eastern Time this afternoon. Logan officials have said that there were 185 passengers on board, 12 crewmembers. They were all safely taken off the plane.

The shoes were X-rayed. They did find some explosives inside the shoes. They've been taken to an isolated area and they were detonated in a grassy area of the airport. The man is in custody. He was apparently carrying a British passport that identified him as Richard Reed (ph). They say he's 28 years old -- about 28 years old and was traveling alone. He had no luggage. They believe it may have been a bogus passport that he was carrying. We'll continue to bring you up to date on this story as it develops.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CALLAWAY: Well we're following a developing story this afternoon about an American Airlines Flight, number 63, on its way from Paris to Miami, diverted to Boston's Logan International Airport after a passenger on board apparently tried to ignite explosives hidden inside his shoes. Now that man was subdued and sedated and fighter jets, two F-15s, escorted the plane to Boston.

That suspect is in -- is in FBI custody. There were two -- several injuries when two flight attendants apparently had to wrestle the man -- wrestle the individual -- passengers also involved in subduing the man. We'll have more information on this as more information becomes available.