Local News

Raleigh man heard 'pop,' saw fire during airliner attack

Posted December 29, 2009 11:35 a.m. EST
Updated December 29, 2009 1:07 p.m. EST

— A Raleigh man was sitting one row away from the young Nigerian man who is charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane near Detroit on Christmas Day.

Kapil Kushwaha, 42, said Tuesday that he heard a sound like a “balloon pop.” About 30 seconds later, he said, he saw smoke and flames 2 to 3 feet high coming from the seat of fellow passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, of Nigeria.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that's a crazy man. Put out the fire. We don't know anything. We're going to die now,’” Kushwaha recalled.

Abdulmutallab was hospitalized with burns from the attack and was read an indictment filed in federal court in Detroit charging him with attempting to destroy or wreck an aircraft and placing a destructive device in a plane.

When asked what punishment Abdulmutallab should get if found guilty, Kushwaha said “very, very bad punishment.”

Kushwaha was flying alone on a trip back from India – a trip he said he has made many times. He had a connection from Amsterdam to Detroit and said he didn't notice the young Nigerian sitting nearby.

An announcement came over the plane intercom to let passengers know they would be landing in Detroit in about 18 minutes, Kushwaha said. Then came the loud popping noise from one row back, he said.

He said he heard people screaming and then cheering when the fire was out, thanks to another passenger and a stewardess who held onto the Nigerian man and put out the flames.

From his seat, Kushwaha said, he briefly saw Abdulmutallab being ushered down the aisle wearing underwear, with his pants around his ankles. The Nigerian man didn't say anything, but he “looked scared,” Kushwaha said.

The plane landed about 10 minutes later. Kushwaha said he and the other passengers were held for several hours so FBI agents could interview them, check their passports and use dogs to search them.

He missed his connecting flight, which was supposed to take him home to Raleigh for Christmas. He called his wife, who was still in India, and told her what happened.

“She was very scared. She said, ‘Oh, God saved us,’” Kushwaha said.

From now on, Kushwaha said he will try to get a direct flight from India so he doesn’t have to change planes. Flying now scares him, he said.

“Somehow, we got all the people saved … but everyone could have died because of one bad (person),” he said.