FBI: Passenger who tried to enter jetliner cockpit hit with ax, subdued

Thursday, February 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ A passenger forced his way into the cockpit of a United Airlines plane on a flight from Miami on Thursday but was subdued after the co-pilot hit him over the head with a small ax, the FBI said.

Pablo Moreira, a banker from Uruguay, was restrained by the flight crew and later arrested by police after the flight landed as scheduled in Buenos Aires at 10:30 a.m. local time, said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman in Miami.

``No information at this time indicates it's a terrorist incident. But, of course, the FBI is investigating,'' said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for President Bush's Homeland Security Council.

United Airlines Flight 855 took off from Miami at midnight with 157 people aboard. Moreira, 28, began kicking the cockpit door about five hours into the flight, as the jetliner flew over Brazil, Orihuela said.

The captain opened the door and Moreira made it inside, according to the FBI. The co-pilot grabbed a small ax and hit Moreira in the head, subduing him, Orihuela said.

Orihuela said Moreira did not appear drunk and was not armed. She said she was not aware of any threats made by Moreira or what prompted him to try to enter the cockpit.

Moreira was treated for his injuries and was lucid and in stable condition Thursday, Orihuela said. A flight attendant also received minor injuries in the struggle, Orihuela said.

Moreira will be charged with interfering with a flight crew and flown back to Miami sometime Thursday, Orihuela said.

Brian Hopman, an Associated Press sales associate who was a passenger on the flight, said the man seemed as if he wanted to talk to the pilot and approached the cockpit, prompting the crew to react quickly.

``There was a huge panic,'' said Hopman, who was seated about halfway back in the plane. ``Red lights were flashing and an army of people rushed forward to the front of the plane.''

Hopman said he could not see all that was unfolding. But he said the man was quickly overpowered near the cockpit and the crew then closed the curtains on the business class section for the remainder of the flight.

``He was handcuffed by the pilots with the help of passengers, and when we landed Argentine troops arrested him,'' said Hopman, adding the last hours of the flight across South America proceeded normally.

``It was pretty much business as usual after the incident,'' he added. ``We had meals and people got up and walked around. They just said, `Do not into the (business) cabin.'''

United Airlines said it had notified local authorities and the FBI about the incident. In a statement, United said flights to and from Argentina would continue as scheduled.

Thursday's incident highlighted anew the rising safety concerns surrounding air travel safety.

In a recent incident, police removed a disruptive woman from an America West Airlines flight on Jan. 28 that was just about to leave Phoenix for San Diego, officials said.

On Jan. 30, the San Francisco International Airport was evacuated after security guards detected explosives residue on the shoes of a man who then disappeared into a crowd. Thousands of passengers waited outside while 28 gates were closed for about two hours and terminal the United Airlines terminal was searched. The man was not found.