MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: A Sri Lankan man who tried to enter an airline cockpit with what he said was a bomb, before terrified passengers managed to overpower him, had just been released from psychiatric care when he boarded the plane, Australian police said Thursday.
Those on board the Malaysian Airlines flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur said they feared for their lives when the 25-year-old rushed towards the cockpit shouting that he wanted to “blow the plane up”.
“He had been released from psychiatric care (on Wednesday), and from there we believe he has purchased a ticket on this plane… and then got out to the airport and on that plane,” Victoria state police chief Graham Ashton told reporters.
Several passengers wrestled him to the floor and tied him up before the plane made an emergency landing at Melbourne airport.
Armed officers from an elite police unit boarded the flight, handcuffing the man and escorting him off the plane. Photographs on national media showed black-clad officers carrying rifles in the cabin.
The suspect, who lived in the Melbourne suburb of Dandenong and was studying to be a chef, said he was carrying a bomb but the device was actually a bluetooth speaker slightly larger than an iPhone, Ashton said.
He added that the incident was no longer being treated as possibly linked to terrorism, but instead a “case involving a mental health issue”.
The unnamed man is now being questioned by investigators. He faces charges of making threats and false claims, and of endangering an aircraft’s safety – offences that carry a 10-year sentence.
Malaysian Deputy Transport Minister Abdul Aziz Kaprawi earlier told foreign media agencies the incident was “not a hijack” but involved “one disruptive passenger (who) tried to enter the plane’s cockpit”.
While officials played down the incident, passengers spoke of a terrifying 90-minute ordeal after the plane took off.
A business class passenger, former Australian Rules football player Andrew Leoncelli, told Melbourne radio station 3AW that the arrested man threatened to blow the plane up.
“The staff were saying ‘Sit back down sir, sit back down sir’. He goes ‘No, I’m not going to sit back down, I’m going to blow the plane up’,” he told 3AW.
“The staff screamed out ‘I need some help, I need some help’. So I jumped up, undid my buckle, and approached him.”
Leoncelli said the would-be bomber ran to the back of the plane, where two other men grabbed him, removed the apparent device, and “put hog ties on him”. Passenger Arif Chaudery said he joined several others to subdue the man. “Families, kids, they were very scared, and some screaming… so three or four guys, we jumped as quickly as possible,” he told Channel Nine television.
“We just put him on the floor and finally staff brought the belt, so we handcuffed him and tied his legs and put his face on the floor.”
A passenger who gave her name as Laura told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she feared for her life.
“I thought the plane was going to go down, I thought the bomb was going to go off, I really did think I was going to die,” she said.
Some passengers questioned why it took so long for the elite unit to arrive after the plane landed, complaining they had to wait about an hour.
But Ashton said there was no delay for such a “life or death scenario” and that officers had to sift through reports of more than one alleged attacker and confirm if the device was explosive before they could safely remove passengers from the jet.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said Thursday that passengers and crew were being offered support after the “frightening” experience.
The incident came just months after Canberra called off the search for missing flight MH370 carrying 239 passengers and crew, after a vast underwater hunt off Australia’s west coast failed to find the plane.
MH370 disappeared in March 2014, while another passenger jet, MH17, was shot down in July of the same year while flying over Ukraine, in twin tragedies to hit Malaysia’s national carrier.