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Secret Service Helps Quell Midair Drama

Agents and others on a Sacramento-bound jet subdue a man allegedly trying to open a door.

April 23, 2006|From the Associated Press

DENVER — Passengers aboard a United Airlines flight had some help when they had to take matters into their own hands to prevent Jose Manuel Pelayo-Ortega from allegedly trying to bring their plane down.

Three Secret Service agents who were headed west to join President Bush's entourage joined other passengers to subdue Pelayo-Ortega when he tried to open one of the doors on the Airbus A-320, officials said.

"Had he opened the door, we'd all be dead," passenger Donna Bell of Visalia, Calif., told the Sacramento Bee after the plane was searched in Denver and allowed to continue westward, arriving at Sacramento International Airport at 9 p.m. Friday.

Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahen said three agents between assignments helped detain Pelayo-Ortega, who was taken off the plane after it made an emergency landing in Denver.

"That saved us," Ian Grossman of Chicago told the Bee. "You don't know what will happen if a guy like that is loose in the cabin."

The Bee reported that passenger Joe Pena, a senior airman at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., described the incident as like a bar fight. "I heard a bunch of commotion, and I heard somebody yell, 'What are you doing?' and 'Get down!' then I saw the guy put into a chokehold, put on his back and pinned down so he couldn't move," Pena said in Sacramento after hugging his tearful wife, Candy.

The newspaper reported that passengers and crew members, including the Secret Service agents, subdued Pelayo-Ortega and then duct-taped him to his seat as a restraint.

While Pelayo-Ortega was being detained, two F-16 fighter jets from Buckley Air Force Base east of Denver scrambled to intercept the plane, which carried 138 passengers and six crew members.

Had the plane "been judged as a threat by the highest levels of our government, they could make the decision to have the plane shot down," said Lt. Commander Sean Kelly, a spokesman for NORAD, a U.S.-Canadian military command based outside Colorado Springs, Colo.

The policy was put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Authorities said Pelayo-Ortega -- whose age and hometown were not immediately released -- tried to open a door on the Airbus A-320 en route from Chicago to Sacramento, and then claimed to have a bomb, forcing the emergency landing in Denver.

Pelayo-Ortega was in a Denver jail awaiting federal charges. FBI spokeswoman Monique Kelso said he would be charged on Monday.

Kelso said authorities searched the aircraft for explosives and re-screened luggage as well as the passengers before they were allowed to re-board the plane, which left for its original destination at about 7:30 p.m.

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