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 articles posted 03/13/06

Eyewitness: "I Never Heard the Word 'Bomb'"
A passenger on Flight 924 gives his account of the shooting and says Rigoberto Alpizar never claimed to have a bomb

Posted Thursday, Dec. 08, 2005 TIMES online

At least one passenger aboard American Airlines Flight 924 maintains the federal air marshals were a little too quick on the draw when they shot and killed Rigoberto Alpizar as he frantically attempted to run off the airplane shortly before take-off.

"I don't think they needed to use deadly force with the guy," says John McAlhany, a 44-year-old construction worker from Sebastian, Fla. "He was getting off the plane." McAlhany also maintains that Alpizar never mentioned having a bomb.

"I never heard the word 'bomb' on the plane," McAlhany told TIME in a telephone interview. "I never heard the word bomb until the FBI asked me did you hear the word bomb. That is ridiculous." Even the authorities didn't come out and say bomb, McAlhany says. "They asked, 'Did you hear anything about the b-word?'" he says. "That's what they called it."

When the incident began McAlhany was in seat 24C, in the middle of the plane. "[Alpizar] was in the back," McAlhany says, "a few seats from the back bathroom. He sat down." Then, McAlhany says, "I heard an argument with his wife. He was saying 'I have to get off the plane.' She said, 'Calm down.'"

Alpizar took off running down the aisle, with his wife close behind him. "She was running behind him saying, 'He's sick. He's sick. He's ill. He's got a disorder," McAlhany recalls. "I don't know if she said bipolar disorder [as one witness has alleged]. She was trying to explain to the marshals that he was ill. He just wanted to get off the plane."

McAlhany described Alpizar as carrying a big backpack and wearing a fanny pack in front. He says it would have been impossible for Alpizar to lie flat on the floor of the plane, as marshals ordered him to do, with the fanny pack on. "You can't get on the ground with a fanny pack," he says. "You have to move it to the side."

By the time Alpizar made it to the front of the airplane, the crew had ordered the rest of the passengers to get down between the seats. "I didn't see him get shot," he says. "They kept telling me to get down. I heard about five shots."

McAlhany says he tried to see what was happening just in case he needed to take evasive action. "I wanted to make sure if anything was coming toward me and they were killing passengers I would have a chance to break somebody's neck," he says. "I was looking through the seats because I wanted to see what was coming.

"I was on the phone with my brother. Somebody came down the aisle and put a shotgun to the back of my head and said put your hands on the seat in front of you. I got my cell phone karate chopped out of my hand. Then I realized it was an official."

In the ensuing events, many of the passengers began crying in fear, he recalls. "They were pointing the guns directly at us instead of pointing them to the ground," he says. "One little girl was crying. There was a lady crying all the way to the hotel."

McAlhany said he saw Alpizar before the flight and is absolutely stunned by what unfolded on the airplane. He says he saw Alpizar eating a sandwich in the boarding area before getting on the plane. He looked normal at that time, McAlhany says. He thinks the whole thing was a mistake: "I don't believe he should be dead right now." -BBC News


What happened next...?


Probe after Miami airport killing
American Airlines plane at Miami airport
The flight originated in Medellin

Investigations have begun after US air marshals on board an American Airlines flight shot and killed a man who started acting suspiciously.

US citizen Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, fled before take-off in Miami, saying he was carrying a bomb, officials said.

It was later confirmed that Alpizar had no explosives in his luggage. Witnesses suggested that the Costa Rican-born man may have suffered from mental illness.

The fatal shooting was the first since more marshals were deployed after 9/11.

James Bauer, head of the US air marshal service in Miami, said that controlled explosions carried out on Alpizar's luggage confirmed he was not carrying a bomb.

There was no indication of any link to terrorism, but federal air marshals were deployed in airports around the US as a precaution, Mr Bauer added.


Alpizar had arrived in Miami, Florida, from Ecuador on a flight that had originated in Colombia. He was boarding a flight to Orlando at about 1410 local time (1910 GMT).
I did hear the lady say her husband was bipolar and had not had his medication
Mary Gardner
Accounts from inside the plane suggest that Alpizar began behaving erratically before he was challenged by the marshals.

"He didn't look stable," fellow passenger John McAlhany told the Miami Herald.

As he ran down the aisle of the plane, a woman assumed to be his wife shouted for him to stop.

Witnesses interviewed after the shooting described how Alpizar's companion tried to tell fellow passengers or air marshals that he suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression.

"I did hear the lady say her husband was bipolar and had not had his medication," said Mary Gardner, another passenger.

"I saw the woman... she was hysterical."

Undated family photo of Rigoberto Alpizar and his wife, Anne Buechner
Alpizar had been married about 22 years, relatives said

After storming up the aisle of the plane Alpizar reached the aircraft boarding gate, where he was challenged by undercover marshals travelling among the passengers, Mr Bauer said.

At some point Alpizar reportedly suggested that he was carrying a bomb in his backpack, before moving his hand towards the bag.

"The threat escalated," Mr Bauer added, explaining why the marshals then opened fire, killing Alpizar.

Police boarded the plane and ordered fellow passengers to brace themselves against their seats with their hands on their heads.

Sniffer dogs checked passenger luggage on the airport tarmac.

"They put a gun to the back of my head and said: 'Put your hands on the seat'. That was more scary than anything else," passenger John McAlhany said.

In a statement, American Airlines described the shooting as an "isolated incident", adding that none of the other passengers were affected or were ever in danger.

"'I don't know if they shot an innocent man or not. I don't think he was armed or had a bomb. I think he had a mental illness," Mr McAlhany added.

"I don't think they really had to shoot him, but I hope he didn't holler something stupid.''


More then one witness stated they never heard him speak of a bomb. And more then one, stated he was sick. Even his wife declared he had a disorder. Still, they shot the man five times.

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