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Passengers pounce on man who made threats aboard L.A.-bound flight

Chris Llewellyn was among those who sprang into action after a man shoved a flight attendant and tried to open an exit door.

January 08, 2009|Andrew Blankstein and Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Chris Llewellyn was staring out the window of Delta Airlines Flight 110, watching the landscape of Los Angeles rise up toward the plane, when he heard the screams of a male flight attendant: "Help me! Help me!"

Turning quickly, he saw that a passenger had pushed the attendant to the floor and was trying to open the rear emergency exit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Passenger heroes: An article in Thursday's Section A about hip-hop musician Chris Llewellyn and other passengers on an L.A.-bound flight who subdued a man claiming to have a bomb did not include a credit for the A1 photograph. The photo taken on a cellphone camera of authorities escorting the suspect was taken by Llewellyn's bandmate Brian Cohen.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Passenger heroes: An article in Thursday's Section A about hip-hop musician Chris Llewellyn and other passengers on an L.A.-bound flight who subdued a man claiming to have a bomb said the plane was a Boeing 757. It was a Boeing 767-400 series.

"Don't come near me," the man warned. "I have a bomb. I have a bomb."

"I thought this guy was going to open the door. I was thinking, 'I'm not going to go down with the plane,' " said Llewellyn, 26, a 6-foot guitarist, who was flying into Los Angeles from Atlanta on Wednesday morning for a TV appearance with hip-hop artist Asher Roth.

Along with half a dozen other passengers, Llewellyn ran down the aisle into the galley area and jumped on the man, pulling him away from the door.

"He was struggling hard-core," Llewellyn said. "I was holding down his arm. Somebody had a foot on his head. Everyone was holding down a different body part. He was going nuts. I was telling him to chill because he's not going any place."

The jet landed safely and no bomb was found. Still, local and federal authorities credited Llewellyn and the other good Samaritans with helping save the day.

The incident was the latest example of passengers joining to prevent someone from doing harm during a flight. Perhaps the most famous example was on 9/11 when passengers on United Flight 93 fought terrorists, forcing the jet down in Pennsylvania and foiling a plot to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol.

There have been other cases in recent years. In 2005, passengers aboard a Southwest Airlines flight bound for Florida helped wrestle a fellow passenger to the floor after he tried to force his way into the cockpit. The next year, a passenger who claimed to have a bomb aboard a Sacramento-bound United flight was subdued by passengers. Months later, an unruly passenger on an American Airlines flight from Seattle to St. Louis had to be handcuffed and strapped to his seat with the help of several passengers.

On Wednesday, many of the other 230 people on the Boeing 757 were grateful that fellow passengers stepped in.

Mary Hughes, 48, a state correctional records official from Panama City, Fla., said she first became aware of a problem when she saw other passengers running by her seat screaming, "No! No! Don't! Stop him!"

"What concerned me was that we were getting ready to land, and I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, we are still in the air. What if he opens the door?' " she said. "It was pretty creepy there."

Hughes said passengers were relieved when the plane landed and authorities boarded to take the suspect away.

"I was glad I was on a plane where passengers fought," she said. "It was great the passengers got involved."

It's highly unlikely that the suspect could have opened the emergency exit door. Because of cabin pressure, aviation experts have said it's impossible for someone to open an emergency exit when a plane is at high altitudes. But the Delta flight was almost on the ground, and one aviation expert said it may have been possible -- though unlikely -- for someone to have gotten the door open. At a low altitude, though, opening the door would not necessarily imperil passengers, the expert said.

The Los Angeles Police Department identified the man as Lawrence Johnson, 45, of Kentucky. He was booked by airport police on suspicion of making a false bomb threat.

A law enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, said there was no air marshal on board. There has been much debate in recent years about how many air marshals actually fly on commercial flights, with some former employees claiming the number is declining. But the Transportation Security Administration denied any problems. Officials refuse to provide numbers but have said "the number of air marshals TSA employs is in the thousands."

In the case of Wednesday's Delta flight, passengers were able to secure the suspect on their own. When the plane landed, a flight attendant retrieved a restraining kit and the group was able to put restraints on the suspect's arms, Llewellyn said.

He said the suspect then asked, "What am I being charged with?" and someone answered, "Assaulting a flight attendant."

"He flipped out over that," Llewellyn said.

Despite the incident, he and other members of his band were able to get to NBC's Burbank studios in time for sound check. They were scheduled to appear on NBC's "Last Call With Carson Daly."

Asher Roth is an up-and-coming rapper who has been named one of MTV's "MCs to Watch in 2009."

By Wednesday night, Llewellyn was ready to move on. "The whole thing happened in about two to three minutes," he said. "It's all kind of a blur now."

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

nathan.olivarezgiles@latimes.com

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