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Co-pilot uses ax to keep man out of cockpit

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- The co-pilot on a United Airlines flight from Miami to Buenos Aires on Thursday struck an unruly passenger on the head with an ax after the man partially forced his way into the plane's cockpit, officials and passengers said.

The plane -- carrying 157 people, including the crew -- landed safely in Buenos Aires.

The man, identified as Pablo Moreira, 28, a bank employee from Uruguay, is in custody, said Judy Orihuela, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Miami.

CNN's Bill Hemmer talks with a airline passenger who describes how a man who tried to force his way into the cockpit on United Flight 855 was restrained. (February 7)

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 The cockpit door
United says a bar installed to reinforce the cockpit door after September 11 helped keep the attacker out of the cockpit. It's a temporary fix until a permanent cockpit security system can be installed. The airline has also asked the FAA for permission to equip its pilots with stun guns.

Moreira was transferred overnight to Miami, where he faces a likely federal charge of interfering with a flight crew, she said. FBI agents accompanied Moreira on the return flight, and an initial court appearance is scheduled for Friday afternoon before a federal magistrate in downtown Miami.

Orihuela said the incident aboard the United Airlines flight began about 5:30 a.m. Thursday when Moreira "got out of his seat, walked toward the cockpit and started kicking at the cockpit door."

The FBI spokeswoman said she did not know if the man was drunk. Other officials said it did not appear that Moreira was intoxicated.

Despite the fact that the cockpit door had been retrofitted with a bar inside designed to prevent unauthorized entry, she said, the man was able to break through part of the door and squeeze halfway in. One passenger said Moreira crawled through the bottom part of the door after it was broken.

At that point, "the co-pilot took an ax and hit him on the head," Orihuela said.

Officials said the ax is equipment normally kept in a cockpit.

A United Airlines spokeswoman said the bar is a temporary fix until a permanent system to secure the cockpit bulkhead can be installed. She credited the retrofitted cockpit door and a quick-acting crew with keeping Moreira from completely entering the cockpit.

"Our crew reacted forcefully and immediately to bar the passenger's entry into the re-enforced cockpit," said spokeswoman Chris Nardella. "Obviously, the man was injured in the struggle."

Nardella said United Airlines has asked the FAA permission to equip its pilots with stun guns.

Moreira, who was traveling in coach class, was described as "stable" and "lucid" after being seen by a doctor at the airport in Buenos Aires, where the Boeing 777 landed about three hours after the incident. Flight 855 left Miami shortly after midnight, Orihuela said.

Officials said Moreira was not carrying a weapon.

Jan Boyer, a passenger who had been seated in the forward first class section, said he was awakened from sleep by "some shouting by one of the stewardesses and by some loud pounding noises."

Boyer said he approached the man and asked what he was doing. Moreira told him he wanted to see the captain, Boyer said.

Several members of the flight crew and other passengers approached Moreira as he kicked the cockpit door "kung fu style," Boyer said. When he eventually forced his way partly into the cockpit, the co-pilot struck Moreira with the small ax.

"This led to a lot of blood all over the place," Boyer said.

Boyer said passengers and the crew carried Moreira back to the business class cabin and restrained him there. The captain decided to continue the flight to Buenos Aires.

"He was grabbed by four passengers, and then two from the staff grabbed him as well," said another passenger who identified herself only as Claudia. "The staff was amazing. Anyway they held him from all sides until we landed."

-- CNN Correspondent Mark Potter contributed to this report.




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