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Passengers on diverted flight tell of fears
Fighter jets escorted plane back to Los Angeles
Friday, September 28, 2001
TORONTO -- Passengers aboard a Toronto-bound Air Canada flight escorted back to Los Angeles by fighter jets after an apparent air rage incident were still shaken Friday as they recalled a SWAT team storming the plane with machine guns drawn.
"It was really scary and I woke up to hear `Get your heads down!' from the SWAT team," said Sarah Wiles-Arnott, a California resident and one of 138 passengers aboard the plane.
Wiles-Arnott was sleeping when a melee erupted Thursday between the flight crew and a man of Iranian descent after he was caught smoking in one of the airliner's washrooms, something prohibited by law.
The passenger, identified as Javid Naghani, became verbally abusive after he was discovered sneaking a smoke aboard Air Canada Flight 792, said airline spokeswoman Nicole Couture-Simard.
Authorities said he uttered an anti-American threat, though they refused to describe it.
But Wiles-Arnott's husband, Rob Arnott, was sitting directly across the aisle from Naghani and said he heard no such threat.
Arnott said the only menacing comment involved Naghani's vow to sue the airline for mistreating him, and added the flight crew was as abusive as he was.
"They put an automatic rifle to the back of the guy's head," said Arnott of the SWAT team.
"I thought he might get killed for smoking while being an Arab."
Arnott and another passenger, Robert Teubner of Pasadena, Calif., described Naghani as being loud and possibly intoxicated as he sat in the plane with his wife, chatting with an older man in his 60s.
"He did some stupid things but an F-16 escort and a SWAT team was an overreaction," Arnott said.
"I think it was much ado about nothing."
The pilot chose to return to L.A. as a precautionary measure, Couture-Simard said. Two F-16s escorted the plane back to the airport.
Neither the Arnotts nor Teubner noticed the fighter jets, which are authorized to shoot down airliners carrying civilians if it's determined the plane is being hijacked in the wake of Sept. 11's terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Another passenger, Toronto's Bruce Fitzgerald, said: "No one saw the planes; that was a good thing."
Added Teubner: "The pilot announced `we are going back to L.A. because there's an undesirable person onboard."'
Upon landing, the SWAT teams entered the plane and "told everybody to put their heads forward on their knees and don't look up," Teubner said.
"Some people were very frightened, be we were very calm. Maybe we were all shell-shocked."
Naghani, an Iranian national who is a U.S. resident, was taken into custody by federal agents but was not immediately charged with a crime.
He was to appear before a U.S. federal magistrate Friday.
The older man was questioned as a material witness, said Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles International airport.
Naghani's wife, Rosa Hinojos, said she didn't see her husband smoking on the plane.
"I was handcuffed all over like I am a terrorist," said Hinojos, who was released after being questioned by authorities.
"This is not the way to treat residents. This is the United States. My husband and I are not terrorists."
Hinojos said they were travelling to Toronto to visit relatives.
Tom Adams, another passenger, told ABC News the man quickly began causing a disturbance.
"The incident didn't really occur until after we took off, when he supposedly was smoking in the back and then said some derogatory comments about Americans," Adams said.
© Copyright 2001 The Canadian Press
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