Reporting from Washington and Denver — Two F-16s scrambled to escort a United Airlines jet into Denver International Airport on Wednesday night after a Qatari diplomat apparently tried to sneak a cigarette, then joked that he had wanted to set his shoe afire, federal law enforcement officials said.
Initially, the incident raised fears of another terrorism strike similar to a passenger's Christmas Day attempt to ignite explosives in his underwear as a Northwest jet approached Detroit, and to the 2001 shoe bomber, Richard Reid, who tried to set fire to his shoes on a transatlantic flight from Paris.
But as the circumstances began to emerge, the incident appeared far less sinister. The diplomat was released without charges and is expected to return to Washington, a spokeswoman for his embassy said Thursday morning. (More details at DCNOW.)
United Flight 663, which had taken off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport with 157 passengers and a crew of six, landed safely with its fighter jet escort at 6:54 p.m.
FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents were interviewing the passenger, identified as Mohammed Al Madadi, to determine if he had attempted to bring down the Boeing 757.
But a knowledgeable source in Denver, who spoke with federal law enforcement officials there, said it appears that no explosives were found and that the incident may have been a misunderstanding.
"The guy just wanted a smoke and went into the bathroom," the source said. "Not a smart thing to do."
The incident was exacerbated by the man's sarcastic comment after leaving the lavatory, when flight attendants and passengers smelled smoke. Asked what he had been doing, he allegedly remarked, "Lighting my shoes on fire," according to one law enforcement source in Washington. Several passengers concurred with that description of events early Thursday.
President Obama was briefed about the situation at 8:50 p.m. Wednesday by his national security advisor, Gen. Jim Jones, and national security chief of Staff Denis McDonough, a White House source said. The president was aboard Air Force One on his way to Prague, where he'll sign a nuclear arms treaty with Russia on Thursday.
"Air marshals responded to a passenger who they believed was causing a disturbance," the White House source said. "Appropriate actions were taken to ensure the safety of the traveling public. The incident is under investigation."
Dave Klaversma of Parker, Colo., said his wife was sitting right behind the suspect in first class. He spoke with her by cellphone after the plane landed.
"There was no struggle or anything like that," said Klaversma, 55. "It was done very, very quietly." He said his wife saw the man get up to go to the bathroom and return with air marshals, who sat with him until the plane landed.
Another passenger, Tim Burney of Centennial, Colo., said he didn't realize anything was wrong until the plane landed. Then two brawny men flanking the suspect pulled out badges identifying themselves as air marshals.
Passenger Mei Turcotte, 26, of Kalispell, Mont., told the Associated Press that she smelled smoke about an hour into the flight. She said she later looked out the window and saw two jets flying alongside the plane.
"I'm in the sky a lot, and I was thinking that might not be so normal," she said.
Passenger Scott Smith of Laramie, Wyo., described the scene to reporters via cellphone. "We came in rather fast and were flying pretty low for a long time," Smith said.
There were no announcements as to what was happening, he said, although after the plane landed a pilot walked down the aisle and asked passengers if they were OK.
Once the plane was on the ground, the pilot said, "We have a situation on the plane," but didn't elaborate, Smith said.
The aircraft sat on the runway for nearly an hour before authorities escorted the suspect off in handcuffs, he said. Passengers were eventually told to leave their bags aboard and go to a fire station for questioning.
That was the procedure authorities followed in Detroit on Christmas Day sequestering, questioning and searching passengers until they were sure no accomplices were among them. One passenger, Matt Erickson, sent a frustrated text message to his wife after he and the other passengers had been held more than four hours.
"Only in America a Qatari diplomat decides to light up a cigarette in the bathroom and then uses his shoe to put it out," Erickson wrote. "He then jokes about it to the guy sitting next to him, who happens to be the freakin' air marshal."
Early Thursday, the Qatar Embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the suspect was a diplomat and denied that he had done anything wrong.
"We respect the necessity of special security precautions involving air travel," Ambassador Ali Bin Fahad Al-Hajri said in a statement, "but this diplomat was traveling to Denver on official embassy business on my instructions, and he was certainly not engaged in any threatening activity.