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CNN BREAKING NEWS
Passenger Killed On American Airlines Flight After Making Bomb Threat
Aired December 7, 2005 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Kyra, and to our viewers in the United States and around the world, you're now in THE SITUATION ROOM, where we're following this breaking news. Happening right now, those gunshots outside an international flight, now on the ground in Florida. Officials say a passenger who made a bomb threat is dead. It's 4 p.m. in Miami, where this airline security story is still unfolding. New details emerging.
Air marshals are on the front lines of homeland security. What did this incident tell us about their job, how well are they doing it? I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
And new information still coming in at this hour about an airline bomb threat as reported and how federal air marshals responded to.
It happened at the Miami International Airport after an American Airlines flight came in from Colombia. Officials familiar with the incident say a passenger claimed he had a bomb on his carry-on luggage.
We're told he was confronted by a team of air marshals who chased him as he fled the aircraft. When he reached into his bag, officials say one air marshal shot and killed the suspect.
Details still very preliminary. Let's get the latest, though. Our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, has been working the story with her sources, she joins us live from the news room.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, first we can tell you that this is the first time since 9/11 a federal air marshal fired a gun in the line of duty. We can also tell you the individual who was shot is a U.S. citizen, 44 years old, no other details at this point in time about his identity.
Officials with whom I've spoken tell the same story you've just recounted. There was an individual on board this flight who indicated that he had a bomb in his carry-on bag, was confronted by the team of air marshals on the flight and he exited the plane.
The air marshals went after him. They told him to drop down. He refused to do so, and he appeared to reach for something in that carry-on bag. It's at that point they fired on this individual. Again, identified as a U.S. citizen, 44 years old.
We're told that the Transportation Security Administration, the federal air marshal, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the FBI are all going to be involved in the investigation of this incident. The FBI in the lead. Wolf?
BLITZER: I assume they're all cautioning us, Jeanne, that information at this preliminary stage can be a misleading -- that initial reports often tend not to be not exactly precise, and that we should standby for official briefings.
As far as you know, are there any official news conferences or briefings schedule at this moment?
MESERVE: No official briefings that I'm aware of, but I have not been very plugged in to what's happening on the ground in Miami. Something may be afoot there and I'm not aware of it.
Here in Washington some of the statements we've been receiving have been official statements from the Department of Homeland Security. They have paused, they have waited, they have collected information, and then they have given us this rendition of events they've shared with us.
Also, we have had from several sources, federal and otherwise, that the individual involved in this incident has died of his injuries.
BLITZER: These are live pictures we're showing our viewers, Jeanne, from tarmac at Miami International Airport. Our affiliate, WFOR, on the scene right now.
These are local law enforcement, presumably federal law enforcement authorities, as well, making sure that everything is calm and quiet, as this incident unfolds, and details of this incident continue to unfold. This was an American Airlines flight 924 that landed in Miami International Airport from Medellin, Colombia.
It was simply designed to make a stopover in Miami before continuing on to its final destination of Orlando, Florida, when this incident occurred. The man supposedly running from the plane on this gate towards the terminal along this runway, as it was beginning, and making ominous statements.
Richard Falkenrath is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, as is Clark Kent Irvin, our homeland security analyst, both former government official whose know a great deal about security matters in these affairs.
Richard, first to you. Based on this preliminary information that can be sketchy and it can be wrong, as information continues to come in. First reports very often are not necessarily accurate, what do you make of this incident?
RICHARD FALKENRATH, CNN SECURITY ANALYST: You're right, first reports are often wrong. This looks like a great tragedy based on what we've heard today. A real tragedy, fatal shooting of an innocent man who appears to have been mentally unstable, if the reporting that we're getting turns out to be true.
Two really interesting piece of information that we're going to need to learn about this, first, did this individual board in Colombia or did he board in Miami? That will matter. It will depend on the quality of screening that was applied to him and his bag.
If he boarded in Colombia, we have a lot less competence in the screening.
Second, was he under observation by the air marshals and did they have any reason to suspect he was mentally unstable?
BLITZER: When you say the plane landed in Miami, the passengers had disembarked. Is that the information you're getting? And already a new batch of passengers come aboard to continue on the flight to Orlando?
FALKENRATH: I haven't -- I don't think we've figured this out yet, when he boarded the airplane. We know the airplane came from Colombia, landed in Miami, was going to fly on to Orlando.
I haven't heard it reported yet if he boarded in Colombia or in Miami. That actually makes a difference because he has a bag. If he boarded in Miami, his bag will have been through a TSA checkpoint.
BLITZER: Just to be precise, as far as whether or not he had a weapon, he reached -- was reaching into his bag, but we don't know for sure there was actually a weapon he was going for?
FALKENRATH: We don't know that.
BLITZER: We're waiting for those kinds of informations. Clark, what do you make this?
CLARK KENT ERVIN, FMR. DHS INSPECTOR GENERAL: Based on what we know, again we are to stress we don't know for sure what happened here, but if, in fact, this fellow said that he had a bomb, and if, in fact, he reached into his bag, then it seems to me the air marshals did exactly the right thing.
In this post-9/11 environment in particular, they're on hair- trigger alert and have to act on the presumption that there is a threat under circumstances like these.
BLITZER: And if he make a bomb threat and begins to run away from the plane, and then reaches into a bag after the air marshals had repeatedly, at least on two occasions we're told, told him to stop, raise your hands, and he continues these kinds of moves, which could be very, very provocative, to put it mildly, what are the rules of engagement as far as air marshals are concerned?
I assume they shoot, but do they shoot to kill or do they shoot to wound?
ERVIN: Under those circumstances, seems to me shoot to kill is clearly called for. If, in fact, he was told to stop, to cease and desist and, in fact, after that, after being told a couple of times to do so, he did not, reached into the bag. Seems to me they had no choice, under the rules, but to shoot to kill him, that's apparently what they did.
BLITZER: Is that your understanding of the rules?
FALKENRATH: The rules of engagement for the federal air marshals are classified, as are a lot of things about this program, but it is generally true that law enforcement officers who believe that they personally are going to be threatened by a suspect who they have already communicated with orally can shoot to kill.
These rules of engagement, the federal air marshals operate under are special, given the environment they operate in and the training that they've had.
That will likely come out in the inquiry that's certain to follow these events.
BLITZER: I know that air marshals are only on a select number of flights, and that's very, very classified. They're not on all flights. Are they, though, on all international flights coming in to the United States? Domestic flights, I know there's only a small percentage in which air marshals fly, but what about international flights?
FALKENRATH: Not on all of them and they are assigned based on a threat assessment that the federal air marshal program, which is now part of TSA performs. They go through all the flights. They have certain intelligence, they have other indicators, and they assign the teams to the flights based and their assessments of risk.
BLITZER: TSA is the Transportation Security Administration, which is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.
I assume a flight from Medellin, Colombia, where there's obviously a lot of drug smuggling, drug money, a lot of those flights, if not all of those flights, into the United States would logically have air marshals?
FALKENRATH: Certainly there is a much higher probability that a flight originating in Colombia, for the reasons you say, would have air marshal coverage.
BLITZER: When we say air marshal coverage, does that mean one, two or more?
ERVIN: The exact number of air marshals overall is classified for obvious reasons. The exact number on any given flight is classified. The higher threat level originating from the place of origin, the likelihood is there would be a greater number of air marshals.
BLITZER: Do they use -- I don't know if either of you know the answer to this, -- do they use on a plane, if there an incident at midair, at 30,000 40, 000 feet, would they use an actual gun to try to subdue someone with a bullet, or a taser, for example? Because there has been a lot of speculation that a bullet, perhaps, could go through the window and bring down that whole plane? FALKENRATH: To my knowledge, they are not armed with tasers, they are only armed with firearms and they are trained to use them in air.
BLITZER: That would not bring down the aircraft? Even if it penetrated the window?
FALKENRATH: I suppose it's a theoretical possibility. But they are trained to avoid that. They always operate in teams, that's my understanding.
ERVIN: That's my understanding as well. They carry guns. Those guns are intended to kill and, under certain circumstances, like these, they are authorized to use guns in that fashion.
BLITZER: You see this new video we're getting behind you and we're showing it to our viewers. These are live pictures that we're getting in. You see it up there from Miami.
This is training video. I just don't want people to think this a is a real thing. These are training pictures we've gotten over the years where air marshals go out there and practice what they do inside. I suppose it's also in part designed to deter someone from trying to hijack or bring down a plane?
FALKENRATH: Absolutely. That's a big part of it. That's part of the reason we don't announce how many there are or what sort of flights have them deployed on the flights. They are very highly trained firearms officers.
BLITZER: Here's a nightmare scenario, Clark. This is one nightmare scenario. That this is a lunatic; this is some crazy guy who just may have had a few extra drinks on the plane, may be drunk, may not be drunk, but may simply be crazy, and law enforcement, these air marshals, react as they're trained to react. But in the process, they may just kill some maniac?
ERVIN: That's exactly right and, of course, you can't help but think back to the London subway incident not so long ago this past summer, where apparently the officers thought that the person who was fleeing was a person who was a terrorist and shot him. Tragically, we found out after the fact that this person was not in fact a terrorist.
But, again, as I say, these air marshals have to make hair- trigger decisions now. And in this post-9/11 environment if there are circumstances like those present here, namely, this person says he has a bomb and he reaches into a bag which purportedly contains the bomb, then it seems to me that the air marshals have to presume he's, in fact, carrying a bomb and to shoot to kill if necessary.
BLITZER: All right. Hold on a second, because our Karl Penhaul is on the scene. Karl, where exactly are you? You're joining us on the phone.
KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm in Bogota right now, Wolf, but in the last few moments I have been talking to the civil aviation authorities at Medellin Rio Negro Airport. That's where this Boeing 757 left from this morning on schedule at 9:10.
And what they were explaining to me, Wolf, was a little bit about the security procedures there at the airport, and they say all of the security procedures were, in fact, in place. That consists of several checks. First of all, passengers have put all luggage, including cargo and hand luggage, through an x-ray machine. The passenger will then go through a metal detector and have a pat down by police officials there.
Once that is complete, then there is a second line of checks carried out by American Airlines security personnel for the cargo luggage and then when the passengers go through to the departure lounge, they will then put hand luggage through another system, a security check point.
BLITZER: Hold on one second, Karl, because I want to show our viewers what's going on. These are live pictures that we're going to show you. They're taking the baggage off the aircraft, as you can see, and they're lining it up outside. I assume, Richard Falkenrath, our homeland security correspondent, that this is simply designed to make sure the dogs can go up and down and sniff this baggage to make sure there are no explosives?
FALKENRATH: This is a process called reverse screening, and it's applied whenever we have a major security incident on the flight. They will go through and essentially do all the screening of the bags of the passengers in reverse, to see if there was anything on there that could cause a threat.
BLITZER: So this is going to be a tedious process, a big international flight like that with all this baggage. They're going to bring it out and reverse screening, as you will, to make sure there's nothing there. That could take hours.
FALKENRATH: Yes, it can take a while.
BLITZER: I've seen that at airports in Europe when I've traveled around the world, and that has happened on occasion.
Richie (ph) Phillips is one of our producers based in Miami. He's on the scene at Miami International Airport. Richie, what are you seeing? What are you hearing?
RICH PHILLIPS, CNN SENIOR PRODUCER: Well, Wolf, right now the airport, Miami International Airport, is operating business as usual right now. Concourse B, which is largely an American Airlines terminal here, has been opened. It's been reopened for some time now.
As you would expect, at the time the incident, it was closed. It was actually emergency evacuation at the time to get the terminal cleared, the concourse cleared, so that everyone could be safe, obviously.
But that terminal has been reopened. The airport is certainly open, has not closed at all, and like I said, you know, most people that are arriving here have no idea about the incident at all -- Wolf. BLITZER: Do you, Richie, whether or not the passengers whose came in from Medellin, Colombia, landed in Miami, had they already disembarked? Have they disembarked since then? What's the status of those passengers and the new passengers that were going to board this flight, presumably, in Miami and take off for Orlando?
PHILLIPS: Well, you know, as normally happens in a situation like this, Wolf, that's one of the many unanswered questions right now. We, the media, we're all gathered here at the airport waiting to be briefed by Miami-Dad police officials now.
So that certainly is going to be a -- that's one of the high questions on our priority list right now, but as you would imagine, typically what would happen in a federal investigation like this, the passengers will be briefed. They'll be talked to. Everybody wants to know what happened aboard that plane that might have precipitated this incident.
BLITZER: Richie, stand by for a moment. I want to go back to our Karl Penhaul. He's in Colombia, in Bogota, talking to authorities there. I assume to get on an international flight from Medellin, in Colombia, Karl, to Miami, security's got to be enormously tight?
PENHAUL: It is indeed very tight, both from Medellin's Rio Negro Airport and then indeed, Bogota's El Dorado Airport. As I say, the local and national police, do carry out a series of thorough checks, through x-ray machines. On occasion, they do have sniffing dogs there.
I've spent time with the police dogs, and they say that these dogs, depending on which dog they're using, is trained to sniff for explosives and, of course, drugs. Now, not only the x-ray check, but on many occasions they'll do random checks on passengers' baggage, opening those bags and going through that baggage with a fine-tooth comb.
Once the national police are satisfied that that baggage is safe, it will then go through to it American Airlines security personnel, and then, of course, if those passengers then go through to the embarkation lounge, they will put hand luggage that they're carrying on board the plane through another x-ray machine and have another physical pat down after they've gone through a metal detector, Wolf.
BLITZER: And, Karl, this incident, the passenger described by Homeland Security Department Spokesman Brian Doyle, as a 44-year-old United States citizen. Do we know for sure that this passenger, who is now dead, after this shooting incident boarded the plane in Medellin?
PENHAUL: We don't know that for sure. So far, civil aviation authorities in Medellin have not been able to give me a breakdown of the number of Colombians versus U.S. nationals on board that plane. They say that they may be able to get that sometime later.
American Airlines officials here on the ground in Colombia, are referring all calls through to national headquarters in the United States. But what one civil aviation official did say was that he was checking into the fact to see whether the passengers had already disembarked from the Medellin flight, from the Medellin to Miami flight, because, as you'll appreciate, all passengers on their first point of entry into the U.S., must disembark, clear U.S. customs and immigration at that point of entry and then reboard the plane.
This civil aviation authority official said that he was not aware whether those passengers were disembarking when the incident happened or whether they were in fact in the jetway getting back on board the plane, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Karl, stand by for a moment. We're going to get back to you. Just to let our viewers who are tuning in in the United States and around the world watching on CNN and CNN International understand what's going on, this is called reverse screening.
This plane, American Airlines flight is now on the ground, but you see all of the baggage that had been in the belly, had been in the plane, being taken off the aircraft, and dogs are going to go up and down and sniff these suitcases to make sure there are no explosives there.
Richard Falkenrath is our homeland security analyst. Is this standard operating procedure after an incident, a deadly incident like this?
FALKENRATH: Yes it is. Whenever there's a major security incident on an airplane they'll do something like this, even if they have no reason to believe that there might be a bomb in the luggage. They just do it out of an abundance of caution.
BLITZER: And walk us through the process of what these screeners are doing with the dogs? Is it simply a matter of the dogs, if they smell something, they react? Or will they actually go further and then start opening up suitcases?
FALKENRATH: Well, there are two kinds of sniffing dogs: one looking for drugs, the other looking for bombs. My guess is they probably have both kinds running through that line of bags. And if the dogs indicate any particular substance in the bag, they will open it.
It actually turns out to be very important this questions that the correspondent raised from Colombia, whether they've already cleared customs or not. If they have already cleared customs, then it's actually a different set of legal authorities to look into a bag. But if the bags have not yet cleared customs, then our customs officers have total authority to look into any bag they want.
BLITZER: They can just simply, randomly open it up and do whatever they want to it?
BLITZER: And what happens to the bag if they have already gone through customs? I would assume if this is an international flight, unless you do customs at Medellin, which I don't suspect that they do -- the United States has customs officers in Montreal or Toronto, in Canada that they can do that, but I don't think they can do that in Medellin?
FALKENRATH: No, they don't. You have to clear customs when you arrive at point of entry which, in this case, is Miami. And we just haven't heard yet if those bags been through customs or not.
BLITZER: Well, if they had been through customs, they would have already been going through the conveyor belts on the other side of customs. It looks like these bags are actually coming off the plane.
FALKENRATH: Right, but they could have reloaded them. The bags could have come off once, cleared customs, been reloaded back on and now being taken off again. And we'll find that out, we just haven't heard.
BLITZER: Yes, it just sort of sounds logical to me that these bags have not yet gone through customs, they're simply being taken off the plane and dogs are sniffing to make sure there are no drugs, no explosives on these -- in these suitcases.
Karl, you've flown from Colombia to the United States on several occasions. The customs -- you don't go through customs until you arrive in Miami or someplace else, right?
PENHAUL: That's correct. You only go through customs in Miami. There's no U.S. customs clearance procedure at Colombian airports, neither at Medellin's Rio Negro Airport, or in Bogota Airport. But even if I were to fly in on the occasions that I've flown in through Miami and onto Atlanta, for example. Then I would always have to get off the plane in Miami, clear customs and immigration there, physically take my own bags through customs, have them check and then reboard the flight.
And on this particular flight, American Airlines 924, which originates in Medellin, Rio Negro Airport it flies to Miami and it is the same plane that then continues on to Orlando. And so even if a passenger is flying to Medellin, to Orlando, they wouldn't be allowed to sit on the plane, or other passengers who feasibly are just boarding in Miami for the Miami- Orlando stint. All passengers get off, clear U.S. immigrations and customs at first point of entry.
BLITZER: All right, stand by for a second Karl, because Jeanne Meserve is joining us once again. She's been working her sources, got some more information. Jeanne?
MESERVE: Wolf, this from a spokesman for the federal air marshals, who says that this passenger, this 44-year-old U.S. citizen boarded this aircraft in Colombia. He flew to Miami, he deplaned there. But before deplaning, he had an argument with his wife on the flight from Colombia up to Miami.
He deplaned, he went through customs. He had gotten back onto the aircraft. At this point in time, he made threats that he had a bomb. Federal air marshals now telling us that the air marshal team asked this individual to get off the plane. He did get off the plane. They asked him to put down the bag and get down. He did not do so.
And he started approaching the air marshals aggressively at the same time, he appeared to be reaching into his bag. It's at that point in time that the air marshals fired. I am told that two or three shots were fired at this individual. So that's what I can tell you about him at this point in time. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, very interesting, Jeanne. Thank you very much. I'm going to let you work your sources a little bit more. That's important information that Jeanne just provided, Richard.
FALKENRATH: Yes, it is. It sounds like the federal air marshals had him under observation, were actually on the plane with him as he flew up from Colombia to Miami, because that's how they would have known what Jeanne just reported, that he had had this argument with his wife.
And that will be a very important piece of information, because there may have been evidence in there that he was mentally unbalanced, and then people are going to ask, as inevitably after an event like this, people second guess it, why was he allowed back on the plane if he was thought to be mentally imbalanced in one way or another?
Why wasn't he checked there and dealt with it before he got on the plane? I wasn't sure from Jeanne's report where the shooting actually took place. It had previously been reported that it was on the jetway.
BLITZER: On the jetway going from the plane to the terminal.
FALKENRATH: Right. And it sounded from this report, almost that it was in the airplane fuselage itself.
BLITZER: Let me see if Jeanne is still there. Jeanne, do we know where the shooting actually took place?
MESERVE: It did take place in the jetway. It was off of the aircraft. They asked this individual to get off. He did get off, but then he refused to comply with their further demands that he get down and put down his bag.
BLITZER: And Jeanne, do we know anything else about this 44- year-old American citizen?
MESERVE: Really don't. Born in 1961, has a social security card, U.S. citizen, 44-years-old. That's all we're reporting at this point in time.
BLITZER: And no one's releasing his name yet?
MESERVE: Well, we have the name from one source, but we're trying to make sure we're absolutely right on that one before we go public. BLITZER: Well, let's not go public until we're absolutely, positively certain that we have the right man. We wouldn't want to put that kind of wrong information on the air.
Richard Falkenrath, a lot of people are going to wonder, if this guy was not stable, maybe he was drunk, maybe he had a fight with his wife. Why shoot to kill as opposed to shoot to disable?
FALKENRATH: Yes, they will wonder that. And the answer, I suspect will be, that the marshals thought that he was a risk either to the marshals themselves, or to the passengers. Or that they tried to shoot to disable and simply shot lethally. I mean, those are all the details that will come out here. We really don't know yet.
BLITZER: And we assume the air marshals that did the shooting were the air marshals that flew in from Medellin, although it's possible they could be a new team that had been brought into the scene, if this guy already had disembarked, gone through customs and was simply -- and was coming back to reboard the plane to continue on the flight to Orlando, there may have been a new team of air marshals?
FALKENRATH: That's exactly right. There may have been -- this may have been the same team, it may have been different teams. There may not have been a team on the flight from Colombia and they just boarded in Miami. All that will come out.
BLITZER: And normally, there are air marshals on the ground who aren't necessarily in the air that are TSA authorities, law enforcement authorities, with weapons, who are simply at gates or in airports. I assume that's the case.
FALKENRATH: Well, it's actually a different kind of law enforcement officer. The air marshal is a very special law enforcement officer. They're trained to shoot and to kill on the airplane while it's in the air, and to blend in in an undercover way with the passenger. The TSA screeners are not law enforcement officers. They're just checking your bags, but they are always backed up by some kind of law enforcement officer. Most often a local police officer, who is not under cover.
BLITZER: Somebody from Miami-Dade or whatever?
BLITZER: Or the state or local sheriff or somebody from the local law enforcement?
FALKENRATH: Right. And they are overt, I mean they are in uniform, you see them...
BLITZER: .. they have weapons.
FALKENRATH: Right. The federal air marshals are always undercover. They're supposed to blend in and look just like me and you. BLITZER: And you never can tell, Clark Kent Ervin, our other homeland security analyst, who these guys are. Although on big, international flights, I look to look around and try to guess. And very often, I'm wrong. But can you usually tell who these air marshals are?
ERVIN: Well that actually is an issue, Wolf. I mean, one of the problems with the Air Marshal Program has been, according to air marshals themselves, certain things about them that makes it easier for them to be spotted.
Namely, you know, the order in which they board flights. Where their position's on flights. The hotels that they have to check into on the road, that kind of thing. So those are some of the issues that the Department of Homeland Security is looking into in order to preserve the anonymity of air marshals. That's very important for obvious reasons.
BLITZER: This Air Marshal Program, and you were the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, has been controversial. Why is it so controversial? It would seem like such a critically important line of defense for the flying public, but its become controversial in recent years. Why?
ERVIN: Well, it really is the second line of defense after the screeners. We found problems with the screeners when we looked at that in the office of inspector general. And as you say, also with air
We found that a number of air marshals, hundreds had been hired before their backgrounds were scrutinized. And after the fact, we learned that a number of those air marshals that had rather serious things in their background, sexual assault and a number of gun violations as well.
So during the course of the investigation, questions, doubtless, will be asked about these particular air marshals and whether there's anything in their background that suggests they were a risk. Now, that said, everything we know suggests that they did exactly the right thing under these circumstances. But again, a full-blown investigation's going to be conducted and those questions should be asked and they will be asked.
BLITZER: And this hiring of these air marshals who were, shall we say, less than perfect -- this was simply a rush after 9/11, to get as many as possible, get some veterans, get some former military personnel, and not really doing the thorough kind of background check you would have liked?
ERVIN: That's exactly right. It's kind of hard for us to remember what the circumstances were like right after 9/11. But you know, back then we thought that that was just the first of a wave of attacks. As you say, there were efforts to get every available law enforcement officer. I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much, on deck there. And in the rush to do that, certain corners were cut.
BLITZER: You want to elaborate on that?
FALKENRATH: Well, it's right. There was an Air Marshal Program prior to 9/11, but it was very small. And immediately after 9/11 we looked at it and said, "why do we have so few of these officers?"
And so, it was very dramatically expanded. And it was done very quickly. They provide a lot of additional security for our civilian aviation, there's no question. But they did develop in a very autonomous way, they were sort of a service within themselves, first within the Department of Transportation, and then within the Department of Homeland Security. And both departments actually have had some trouble managing this program.
BLITZER: Let me recount. We're approaching the half hour mark here on CNN, CNN International. A story that we'd been following now for the past, I guess hour and a half, or so.
These are live pictures you're seeing from Miami International Airport as we approach 4:30 p.m. Eastern time. This courtesy our affiliate WSVN in Miami. You see the bags have been taken off this American Airlines flight that had come in from Medellin, Colombia into Miami, flight 924. It was scheduled to continue on to Orlando, Florida. An incident occurred after the plane landed.
One passenger, a 44-year-old American citizen, U.S. citizen, got off the plane, cleared customs. After being observed having an argument, we're told, with his wife onboard, went back on the plane. Was making some rowdy comments or some disturbing comments, and began to run off the plane onto the jetway connecting the aircraft to the terminal, talking about some sort of bomb threat, making some sort of bomb threat.
The air marshals who were on the scene told him to stop. We're told on two occasions. He began to reach down to his bag, at which point he was shot and killed. We're seeing the bags have been taken off, at least most of these bags. A lot of the bags have been taken off the aircraft from the belly.
They're being inspected right now. Dogs going through, it's called reverse screening. Screening after a plane lands, to make sure there are no explosives or drugs in this particular case, given the fact that this plane originated in Medellin, Colombia.
It's a story that raises all sorts of worrisome developments. It's the first time since 9/11, September 11, 2001, the attacks against the United States, that an air marshal has shot at a passenger or a suspect in the United States. And I don't know about elsewhere around the world, at least in the United States. Our producer, Richie Phillips, is on the scene at Miami International Airport.
Richie, what are you picking up?
PHILLIPS: Hi, Wolf. Well, I can tell that just a little while ago, we spoke to a couple of passengers who had already gone through customs, who had been on that aircraft. And incidentally -- and you might find this amusing -- but they did not even know about the incident until CNN informed them of it.
Evidently, they deplaned well ahead of the incident and, you know, found themselves in the middle of doing this normal airport thing, like getting their bags and going through customs, and weren't even aware of the situation there.
We're still here waiting to get any sort of word from the Miami- Dade police department, and we've been told just a little while ago they will not -- will not -- issue a press conference, but they will issue a paper statement to the media here, which -- a bit strange, perhaps, but evidently that's the way it's going to be -- Wolf?
BLITZER: Richie, I take it Miami-Dade sheriffs, Miami-Dade County, they're in charge of security at the airport? Is that right?
PHILLIPS: Yes, that's right. This is a county facility. They have their own airport police, and they certainly police the county. That's right.
BLITZER: And you're saying we're waiting for a statement from Miami-Dade as well as from American Airlines?
PHILLIPS: No. We haven't had contact, per se, with American Airlines here on the ground. We have spoken to airport officials who are certainly referring all calls up to Washington. But the Miami- Dade police, though, like I said, will issue a paper statement, a written statement, in a few minutes, we're told.
BLITZER: All right, Richie, we're going to get that statement from you as soon as it happens. Stand by for that.
Richard Falkenrath, as we see these pictures, the reverse screening, the bags have been taken off this American Airlines plane and dogs are sniffing, they're going through it. This is standard operating procedure, as you point out, in the aftermath of an incident like this, a deadly incident.
U.S. air marshals shooting and killing a passenger who was acting very strangely, making threats, we're told, about a bomb. What happens to the passengers, though, who were on that plane? Do they go through a reverse screening process as well?
FALKENRATH: Yes. If they're following the procedures that I was familiar with, those passengers would be put in a room, held together, and they would be screened themselves, individually, a lot like they were screened when they first boarded the airplane, but in some ways probably more intensively.
Each one will probably go a metal detector, will probably have their bags go through the x-ray machine begin. Their names may well be checked against various government watch lists to see if any of them are of particular concern.
And this is done out of an abundance of caution now that so much has focused on this particular incident, the federal officials just want to make sure that no stone is left unturned. BLITZER: That's gate D42 at Miami International Airport, where this flight 924 landed and this incident occurred. We're going to take a quick break. We're going to continue our extensive coverage. This is breaking news. A deadly incident. The first time since 9/11 that U.S. air marshals have shot and killed a passenger. We'll update you on what we're learning. Stay with us.
BLITZER: The story we're following here in Washington, D.C., it's occurring in Miami at Miami International Airport. An American Airlines flight that had landed from Medellin, Columbia, with continuing service on to Orlando.
An incident occurred. U.S. air marshals spotted a passenger who was supposedly making threatening comments about a bomb, making a bomb threat. Began to run down the jet way from the plane into the terminal. Reached, supposedly, into a bag, at which point air marshals shot and killed him.
The baggage from the plane is now being taken off from the belly. It's going through a process that's called reverse screening. Dogs will be sniffing it. They're sniffing it right now to make sure there are no explosives, no drugs.
This, a standard operating procedure in the aftermath of this kind of incident. Our homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve is checking in with her sources and is joining us now with some more information -- Jeanne?
MESERVE: Wolf, Dave Adams, the spokesman for the federal air marshals identified the individual who was short and killed this afternoon as Rigoberto Alpizar. He is described as being a U.S. citizen, 44 years of age.
At this point in time, that is the only information we have on this individual. The name again, Rigoberto Alpizar. Just to clarify one thing, Wolf, the early reports were that this individual ran off the plane. The Federal Air Marshals are now saying that they've clarified the situation.
Apparently, he made the threat that he had a bomb and he was asked to get off the plane by the Federal Air Marshals. That is why he was in the jet way when this incident took place. Once in the jet way, he refused to comply with their demands. That's why they fired the shots.
BLITZER: And they're not giving us any more information about Rigoberto Alpizar, is that right?
MESERVE: That's correct.
BLITZER: Only that he's 44 years old, a United States citizen. We don't know his home town or anything like that.
MESERVE: We haven't confirmed any of that information yet with officials.
BLITZER: All right, Jeanne, thank you very much.
The normal procedure, Richard Falkenrath, for this kind of situation, releasing information to the public, in this era of 24/7 cable news, everybody wants to know everything right away. What are the guidelines for the U.S. government, the Department of Homeland Security, specifically the federal government, in releasing information to the public?
FALKENRATH: I'm not sure there be any, Wolf. There may be. I'm not personally familiar with them. And clearly, the information that we're getting is coming out through drip, drip, drip.
BLITZER: Piecemeal. Which can be confusing, and very often can be wrong.
FALKENRATH: It can be very confusing, and I have a hunch that the secretary's office, maybe even the White House, are dismayed that many different officials from the federal government are releasing information piecemeal, as you say, to the news outlet.
They would prefer, it's natural, to be able to provide a single authoritative timely briefing for everyone so that we all had accurate, clear information. When something develops this fast, it's just sort of impossible.
BLITZER: And Clark Kent Ervin, before the U.S. government, the federal authorities, whether it's the Department of Homeland Security in this case, or the FBI in another case, or the Pentagon in a third case, involving military matters, before they go out and brief the press, they have to be sure they have the correct information themselves.
ERVIN: That's exactly right. And as you say, under these circumstances, it's even more important that the federal government get it right. So I think it's going to be a while before we get a definitive, authoritative statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
BLITZER: Let's go down to Colombia where this flight originated, American Airlines Flight 924. Earlier in the day, our Karl Penhaul is joining us from Bogota right now. Karl, what else are you picking up? Update viewers that may just be tuning in on what you know about this incident.
PENHAUL: Well, what the aviation authorities in Medellin's Rio Negro Airport have told me is that this flight left as normal, on schedule, at 9:10 local time this morning. There have been no security incidents reported ahead of that flight.
What the aviation officials also were telling me, Wolf, was that all security mechanisms were in place. Now, those consist of multiple checks by the national police force, both checks of luggage through x- ray machines, and also physical checks, pat-downs of passengers. After that, passengers were also checked by American Airlines security personnel. And all hand luggage as passengers go to the embarkation lounge is also checked again by security x-ray machines. Airport officials say that all of those machines were functioning fully this morning. And so there were no incidents in that respect.
I've also been making in the last few moments some checks of some of the top hotels in Medellin to see if they have any trace of Rigoberto Alpizar as a guest. They tell me no. So far, I haven't been able to turn up any record of him being a guest at these hotels. But again, one might suggest that with a name like that, it is possible that he did have some Colombian family background, could have stayed with friends or family in the area, Wolf.
BLITZER: Is that a Colombian name, Rigoberto Alpizar, as you call him?
PENHAUL: Alpizar isn't too common a Colombian surname. Rigoberto is certainly a very common Hispanic name, very common in Columbia as it is across much of the west of Latin America.
BLITZER: All right, we're going to get back to you very, very soon, Karl. I know you're collecting more information from your sources in Colombia where this American Airlines Flight 924 originated. Ali Velshi is in New York checking the situation. What's the fallout on other flights, Ali, as a result of this deadly incident in Miami?
ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, and what we're looking at is people who are trying to get around the country, trying to get a handle on whether or not this is affecting their travel. We just spoke to AMR who said nothing else is affected.
The plane in question has been taken out of service. They've replaced that with another aircraft and everything's run smoothly for most of the system except, actually, around Dallas-Ft. Worth, which is their big hub, because they've got temperatures of about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, some icy weather there, and a severe winter warning watch in Dallas.
So if you're an American passenger, American, of course, is the largest user of Miami International Airport. If you are an American passenger, you may suffer delays around the country, but that's got less to do with what's going on in Miami and more to do with their major hub having some weather problems. Also, as we pointed out, Miami is the largest exiting point for travelers to and from Latin America - Wolf.
BLITZER: So it's understandable that there could be some problems. I suppose, though, that it's not going to be all that disruptive?
VELSHI: No. They're pretty confident that they're getting the system back on line quickly. They have enough planes, particularly a plane to replace this one that's been taken out of service. Obviously, it's going to be out of commission for some time, they're saying they're not reporting problems across the board.
BLITZER: All right. Ali, we're going to check back with you. If you get some more information, you'll let us and your viewers know about that.
I guess, Richard and Clark, as we talk about this, you know, this nightmare we've been talking about, if he was simply just an unstable individual? And maybe his English not that good, maybe he didn't understand. You referred to that incident in London where that guy was trying to run away from local authorities, was shot and killed in the subway in London. There could be a misunderstanding that can result in a horrible consequence.
FALKENRATH: Yes, there can. And there's so many variables that come into play in a situation like this that. You know, their job, the air marshals' job, is to protect the passengers and themselves and the transportation system. But they also have to watch out, obviously, about how they use force here. They have to consider many, many different things.
There were some earlier reports, for instance, that the man's wife was shouting that he was bipolar, that he was not taking his medications, that he was mentally unstable. They would have to deal with that.
But they'd also have to deal with the possibility she was an accomplice and that that was part of a plot to the carry out the attack. And so they couldn't necessarily trust it entirely what she was saying. You know, these people, whoever the air marshals were, will be second-guessed.
They obviously will be the subject of a major inquiry. The entire program is likely to be subject to a major inquiry, and we'll find out all these little details about the situation in the weeks to come.
BLITZER: Because we don't know, but there could just be a huge tragedy that we have all witnessed and that we're watching. We don't know the answer to that, but maybe Gwen Belton of our affiliate WPLG in Miami has some more information.
Gwen, exactly where are you?
GWEN BELTON, WPLG REPORTER: Wolf, I'm on the north side of Miami International Airport, obviously being kept a great distance away. Let's take you in closer and give you a look at what's going on here on the north side of the airport.
As you can see off in the distance, American Airlines Flight 924 still on the tarmac. It is surrounded by fire rescue and hazmat foam trucks. Investigators, including canine bomb-sniffing dogs, have been going all over this plane, crawling all over it, looking for evidence as they proceed with this investigation.
Also, I don't know if you can see it clearly, but there's a ladder up against the side of the plane where passengers who were on the plane at the time of this incident were led off, I'm told with their hands in the air. Buses were brought. These passengers were placed on those buses and more than likely taken to a place where they're interviewed as to what they heard and what they saw.
As you said, again, this flight originated in Colombia, stopped over in Miami, and was bound for Orlando when this incident happened. Investigators have been out here quite a while. The trucks are still coming in. Investigators are still coming in, so it doesn't look like this investigation is going to be letting up any time soon. So this could go on for a while as this investigation moves forward -- Wolf Blitzer?
BLITZER: All right, Gwen, thank you very much. Gwen Belton from our affiliate WPLG in Miami.
John Zarrella, our Miami correspondent, is on the scene for us as well, our long-term Miami correspondent. Where are you, John? What are you seeing?
JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'm right in front of the airport in front of terminal E, the concourse where American Airlines has many of its planes flying out of. I'm sure you can see behind me all the traffic, the super shuttles, the buses, the cars. We are upstairs at what would be the passenger drop-off point.
And it is moving normally. The airport was not shut down by this particular incident today. What we can tell you about where we stand now here, waiting for a paper statement from Miami Airport Aviation Authority. We will not, apparently, get a news conference here. Just a paper statement being released.
Perhaps much of the other information will come out of Washington, D.C., as this investigation into exactly what happened on the loading bridge begins to unfold. I can tell you that one of our producers inside managed to talk, Wolf, with a couple of passengers who were on the flight from Medellin, and they expressed, you know, complete surprise.
Did not have any clue as to what had happened on the loading bridge, which, apparently, according to everything we are garnering information-wise, happened when this particular passenger got off the flight, cleared customs in Miami, and may, in fact, have been re- boarding the plane when all of this went down with the Federal Air Marshals here at Miami airport.
But, again, everything is moving smoothly at the airport, Wolf, at this particular time, and waiting for a statement from airport authority officials here that hopefully will clear up some of the confusion as to exactly what happened and when here at the airport -- Wolf?
BLITZER: John, stand by for a moment, because I want you to react to this as well. One of our affiliates, WFOR, in Miami, spoke with one of the passengers who had been on that flight, American Airlines Flight 924. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She heard three gunshots, and then everyone was running, like, everyone was going crazy. They got up and started running. And she went to go get me because I was in the restroom, and she went in there and she was like, "There's an emergency. Hurry up and get out."
So then I got out and we ran down the other way where everyone was going. And then from there, that's when everybody was like running the other way. The police came and everything. And from what I heard was that they captured the man, but they shot him, and that he's dead.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And another passenger, John Zarrella, told the Associated Press that the person who was shot and killed was mentally unstable and was not taking his medication. What are you hearing, if anything, on that?
ZARRELLA: Well, nothing more than what you're hearing, Wolf. The reports that we're hearing, that certainly there was a possibility that may have been the case. You know, it begs the question that one passenger interview with the three people, the three shots being fired.
I'm still a bit confused as to where that passenger was. Was she sitting down already on the plane? Had she re-boarded? Was she or her friend in the lavatory on the plane? Or were they out in the waiting area preparing to re-board when the three shots were fired on the loading brace?
So, again, lots of the questions that hopefully airport authority officials here will be able to answer for us. But going back to the point about the victim in this, it is certainly a question as to what the person's mental state was. That's floating out there now. And exactly where and when and under what circumstances, what exactly was said when all of this transpired that resulted in this man's death -- Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, John, we're going to check back with you. It's now almost three hours since this incident occurred. It occurred shortly after 2:00 p.m. Eastern, this deadly incident involving this 44-year-old U.S. citizen who was shot and killed by U.S. air marshals. The first time U.S. air marshals had fired since 9/11, four years ago.
It also indicates, since the incident occurred shortly after 2:00 p.m., the plane was getting ready to take off once again from Miami to Orlando. We're told by the Associated Press 105 passengers were onboard that flight, that plane, when this incident occurred. We're going to continue our special coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Much more coming up right after this short break.
BLITZER: Welcome back to our coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Breaking news coming out of Miami, Florida, Miami International Airport. Almost three hours ago, a deadly shooting incident on a jet way from an American Airlines flight, Flight 294 from -- 924, excuse me. Flight 924 from Medellin, Colombia to Miami, continuing on to Orlando.
An incident occurred when a passenger made threatening comments on the jet way as he was asked to walk off the plane, just before getting ready to leave the terminal to head off to Orlando. The passenger, identified as a 44-year-old American citizen named Rigoberto Alpizar or Alpizar, depending on the pronunciation, shot and killed by U.S. air marshals.
The first time U.S. air marshals have fired during an incident of any kind of nature since 9/11. We're watching this story unfold here in THE SITUATION ROOM with Richard Falkenrath and Clark Kent Ervin, our homeland security analysts.
Who is going to investigate, Richard, this incident to make sure that the air marshals did the right thing and didn't do anything they weren't supposed to be doing?
FALKENRATH: I believe, Wolf, and I may be wrong, but I believe it's the FBI who does this. This is the first fatal shooting by an air marshal in memory. And so there's no real experience doing this. So I think when there's a fatal shooting on federal jurisdiction, which an airplane would be, that it is, in fact, the FBI who investigates. And that will be a source of tension, if so, between the Air Marshal program and the FBI, because there's no lost love between those very high intensity organizations.
BLITZER: What do you mean? Between the Air Marshals and the FBI there's no love lost?
FALKENRATH: Yes, that's right. These are law enforcement agencies, in my experience, are really very aggressive, very sort of type-A personalities. And they really do not -- they like their autonomy. And don't like other agencies coming in telling them what to do and second guessing their decisions and their operational activity.
And further, every federal law enforcement agency feels a sort of inferiority complex with the FBI. And the FBI feels sort of a superiority complex with everybody else. So there is, beneath the surface, some tension there. And if it is the FBI who goes and investigates this, I think there will be some very tense moments in the inner agency.
BLITZER: Clark, does it make any difference that this incident occurred on the jet way between and the terminal as opposed to on the plane or in the terminal? Miami-Dade law enforcement would be in charge of security inside the terminal, and I assume federal authorities would be in charge, the air marshals on a plane. But what about that jet way in between?
ERVIN: Well, it's a good question. You know, it's kind of a gray area. I would think that there'd shared jurisdiction with the federal government having primacy there. So at the end of the day, I think ultimately, the federal government would be control, but I think the state and local authorities will have something to say about it as well.
I'd also add, in response to the previous question, given the gravity of this, this being the first incident that we know of, of shooting on a plane after 9/11 on the part of air marshals, I expect and hope that there will be an internal Office of Inspector General investigation. It's a very serious matter. This has to be done right. And I hope that an independent investigation will be conducted.
BLITZER: At the Department of Homeland Security?
ERVIN: At the Department of Homeland Security.
BLITZER: I assume that just goes without question, that there will be an internal investigation.
ERVIN: There certainly should be one. And the Office of Inspector General is the logical office to conduct that because it's technically independent of the department, even though structurally it's a part of the department.
BLITZER: So what happened to those air marshals in between, the air marshal who actually fired the weapon? We heard three, maybe four or five shots were fired? We don't know, one or two of the air marshals actually fired their weapons?
ERVIN: You mean, will they continue in their jobs during the pendency (ph) of the investigation?
ERVIN: Yes. I'm quite certain that they're be allowed to continue. We have no reason to believe that they've done anything wrong.
BLITZER: They may have been doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing.
ERVIN: And based on everything we know, they have done exactly what they should do. But still, an investigation needs to be conducted. But there's no reason to suspend them during the pendency of the agency that I can see.
BLITZER: If you're just sitting back and watching this unfold, and we have viewers all over the world watching right now, what is the immediate lesson you've learned from this incident?
FALKENRATH: Well, there's two. One is when a law enforcement official, an airport security official, tells you to do something, you need to do it. You need to obey. And they are not messing around in any sense.
BLITZER: Let me stop you on that. In the past, I have heard complaints that maybe some people didn't speak English, so they may not understand. If this individual, who was an American citizen named Rigoberto Alpizar -- maybe his English was not that good. He may not have understood.
And if you see plain-clothed individuals drawing a weapon, running after you, do you naturally assume these are law enforcement, these are federal officers? You might think, if you're coming from Medellin, Columbia, these could be bad guys?
FALKENRATH: That's entirely right, Wolf. This individual might have had all those problems, and also, he might have been mentally impaired in some way or another. We don't know that. That's really the second lesson I draw, is that in this very high-stakes environment, mistakes are occasionally made. And when they are made, they can be fatal.
And the U.S. government is, by no means, perfect. It does make mistakes from time to time. This appears to be one of them, even if the officers in question were operating according to their rules of engagement. But mistakes do happen.
BLITZER: You want to add something, Clark?
ERVIN: You raise a very good point, Wolf, because again, in the London incident, that's exactly, apparently, we know now after the fact, what happened.
ERVIN: His English was bad. He didn't know that they people following him were officers.
BLITZER: And they were not dressed in uniform either.
ERVIN: They were plain-clothes offices. So one of the questions that this investigation to be conducted will surely raise is whether air marshals should have some kind of uniform or something to identify themselves as such.
On the other hand, by doing that, do they serve the deterrent effect that we need? So it's a very, very difficult issue, and there are two sides to it, at least.
FALKENRATH: Wolf, we are not the only country with an air marshal program. There are some others out there. Israel has one. And there actually was a period in mid-2004 when we were seeking that every country that has flights coming into the U.S. have an air marshal program to be deployed on their aircraft when we ask for it.
And several countries really objected to that and said, "No, we do not want to do that." It was a source of diplomatic tension.
BLITZER: All right. Hold off for a second because we're going to continue this right at the top of the hour. Our Ali Velshi is in New York. He's watching the impact on airlines as a result of this deadly incident approaching three hours ago. Ali, what are you picking up?
VELSHI: I'm just picking up on what you were saying there about, you know, we don't know whether or not this passenger who was shot was communicating in English, what he might have thought. As we were mentioning earlier, Miami International Airport typically ranks among one of the busiest airports in the United States.
And when you break down the numbers, about 14 million passengers a year, which ranks it number three after New York and Los Angeles. Why it's so busy is because about seven million passengers get off and about seven million passengers get on because of what you're talking about.
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