On a day when President Bush and Gov. Gray Davis sought to reassure the public that air travel is safe and returning to normal, threats from one passenger forced an Air Canada jumbo jetliner back to Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, under escort by two F-16 fighter jets. The disruptive traveler had been caught smoking in a bathroom.
Javid Naghani's alleged threats to kill Americans prompted the sudden turnaround of the Boeing 767 that had been bound for Toronto with 138 passengers and a crew of seven. Soon after the plane was on the ground, airport police stormed the aircraft with drawn guns and detained Naghani, an Iranian citizen, along with a woman companion. The FBI said charges, unspecified as of late Thursday, will be filed against Naghani. His companion was questioned and released.
The emergency landing and the roar of military aircraft overhead coincided with Davis' visit to LAX. The governor had invited the media to the airport, to deliver a message urging Californians to return to the air. Earlier in the day in Chicago, the president made a similar appeal in a nationally televised address to airline workers.
Federal officials said that Flight 792 pulled away from LAX's Terminal 2 on schedule at 12:40 p.m. and took off seven minutes later for a trip expected to take five hours.
The plane was nearing its cruising altitude over the eastern Mojave desert when passengers and crew members smelled smoke coming from the rear of the cabin.
Flight attendants began banging on the door of a rear restroom, according to Bhasha Leonard, 55, a passenger from Irvine. She said it took the short, dark-haired man inside some time to emerge. Attendants angrily told him that he could be handcuffed and the plane might have to return to Los Angeles.
"They ripped into him," Leonard said. "It was terrific."
Another passenger, Elizabeth Eyerman, said a flight attendant told her the man threatened to blow up the plane. An official in Los Angeles, who asked not to be identified, said the man "yelled that he wanted to kill all the Americans on board."
A third passenger, Eve Hands of Westchester, said the man had been "loud and obnoxious" as he boarded the plane. "I don't know why they let him on," she said. One passenger said he told a gate agent he was drinking sangria. Naghani's demeanor reportedly changed after he was admonished by flight attendants. They then escorted him to a jump seat, normally reserved for crew members. By that time, he had turned "meek and mild," Leonard said. The man repeated several times: "I'm an American. I'm an American."
Naghani was taken to the airport police station. He complained of chest pains and was taken to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood. He was treated and released to authorities.
The Pentagon had announced earlier in the day that aircraft that might appear to be on a suicide flight into a building could be shot down. An Air Force spokesman late Thursday reiterated that directive but added that the Air Canada passengers had nothing to fear from the F-16 escort.
"Just because you've got fighters escorting you doesn't mean they're getting ready to blow you out of the sky," said John Haire, media chief at Edwards Air Force Base. "There's nothing to be afraid of. They're your friends. In this case, they were there as a precaution."
With controllers clearing a pathway, the airliner made a U-turn and headed back to LAX, flanked by the fighter jets.
Himman Dhamija, a passenger from Sydney, Australia, said the pilot came on the intercom.
"He was really calm," Dhamija said. "He said, 'We have a passenger who needs to be offloaded. We're going back to L.A.' "
As the jumbo jet touched down at 1:35 p.m. on Runway 24 Left on the north side of the airport, the jet fighters broke off their escort, climbing over LAX in a deafening roar that turned heads for miles.
Police cars and fire engines surrounded the plane.
Passenger Chris Bollard said that after a moment of quiet, armed airport police dashed in through a rear entrance to the plane. "They said, 'Get your heads down! Get your heads down!' " Bollard said.
"I've never been so scared in my life," said Sara Peterman, a passenger from Great Britain. "I thought there was going to be a shootout."
Naghani and his woman companion were hustled off the plane without incident and taken away for interrogation. A well-dressed man whom Naghani had been seated next to and addressed as "father" during the flight was not detained.
The other passengers used portable stairways to exit the aircraft and were taken by bus to the terminal and interviewed by the FBI.
A Los Angeles Police Department bomb-disposal team then searched the 767 but failed to turn up anything. Investigators tore apart the seat in which Naghani had been sitting, but it was not known whether they found anything.
Air Canada officials said the same plane would be used to fly the passengers to Toronto just before midnight Thursday.
As the plane returned to LAX, reporters were waiting for Davis. The governor was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and back, on commercial flights--an itinerary designed to reassure the public.
"I want to stress that flying is safer today than on Sept. 10," the governor said. "The best way to respond to terrorists is not to get in a hole and hide.
"If flying is part of your business, come back and fly. If you're going to go on a vacation, come, get on a plane and enjoy yourself."
Times staff writers Geoffrey Mohan, Carla Hall, Greg Krikorian, Jill Leovy, Eric Malnic and Jean Merl contributed to this story.