A retired San Mateo police officer who helped subdue a passenger trying to storm the cockpit of a San Francisco-bound American Airlines flight on Sunday described today how he and others restrained the man.
Larry Wright, 54, of San Mateo, said he had earbuds in when he heard a scream behind him and saw the suspect, 28-year-old Rageh al-Murisi, run past him saying “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.”
Wright followed al-Murisi to the front of the plane, where crew members and other passengers had brought him to the ground.
Wright’s adrenaline and police training instincts kicked in almost immediately, he said, as he put al-Murisi in a control hold and threaded flex cuffs supplied by crew members around his wrists and ankles. About four or five people assisted him.
At first, his hands slipped off al-Murisi because the suspect’s skin was so clammy, Wright said.
He said he quickly began to worry about the possibility of explosives or an accomplice, and decided it was best to keep al-Murisi at the front of the plane in case he was in possession of a contamination agent.
“We also didn’t want to move the suspect because it would divide resources,” he said.
He used his belt to tie the wrist cuffs to the ankle cuffs, and then put al-Murisi on the ground in the first row and sat on him for the remainder of the flight. He said al-Murisi kept repeating “Allahu Akbar” as he was held down but did not say anything to him directly.
Wright said he had the impression that al-Murisi’s actions were not spontaneous.
“My opinion at the time was that he had thought about it,” said Wright, who was a police officer for 27 years before he retired four years ago with a back injury. He now works as an investigator for an insurance company.
Although Wright was more focused on al-Murisi than the other passengers, he said most seemed to have stayed calm throughout the ordeal. One girl appeared to be in shock, he said.
He said he was too focused on subduing al-Murisi to be afraid, and had decided after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks what he would do if he were ever in a similar situation.
“I swore to myself that I would never be a victim,” he said.
It wasn’t until about an hour after San Francisco police had taken al-Murisi into custody that Wright finally started to relax, he said, adding that he would not hesitate to get back on a plane.
“This was an isolated incident,” he said.
Al-Murisi was called a “significant threat” by a federal prosecutor at his first appearance in U.S. District Court this morning.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elise Becker asked U.S. Magistrate James Larson at the hearing in San Francisco to order al-Murisi held in custody without bail while awaiting trial.
Larson scheduled a detention hearing for Friday to consider the prosecution’s request.
Al-Murisi’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Elizabeth Falk, said she will ask for bail and will talk to al-Murisi’s relatives in Vallejo to determine whether they can post a bond.
Al-Murisi was charged in a federal criminal complaint on Monday with interfering with crew members on the flight, which was headed from Chicago to San Francisco International Airport.
An affidavit filed with the complaint states that al-Murisi left his seat in the rear of the plane, headed through first class and tried to open the locked cockpit door by moving the door handles.
The chief flight attendant initially thought al-Murisi was looking for the restroom and twice told him the lavatory was on the left. But al-Murisi then made eye contact with the attendant and began ramming the door with his shoulder, the affidavit said.
After the flight attendant called for help, al-Murisi was subdued and placed in plastic handcuffs by flight attendants and passengers, including Wright and a retired U.S. Secret Service officer.
Becker, in asking Larson for custody without bail today, mentioned that al-Murisi had said “Allahu Akbar” as he moved toward the cockpit door.
She said an al-Qaida terrorist who participated in the hijacking of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, was heard on a voice recorder to have said the same phrase as the plane plummeted to a field in Pennsylvania.
Becker said al-Murisi had no luggage and was carrying two checks totaling $13,000 on the flight. She said that al-Murisi, who holds a Yemeni passport, had identification showing addresses in New York City and Vallejo.
Outside of court, relatives said al-Murisi had been a math teacher in Yemen and had lived in Vallejo for a time before moving to New York.
Ahmed Almoraissi, 25, of Vallejo, who said he is a cousin, said, “He’s a normal guy.
“He has no intention of hurting anyone. It doesn’t make sense,” the cousin said.
Today’s court session was al-Murisi’s initial appearance, at which he was informed of the charges against him. The crime of interfering with flight crew members and attendants carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction.
Janna Brancolini/Julia Cheever, Bay City News