Student sits next to terror suspect on Christmas flight

Calvin College

When he left Prague on Dec. 22, sophomore Jay Howard planned to be home in Grand Rapids for Christmas Eve with his family. Instead, three days later, he found himself on Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit sitting next to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old man accused of trying to blow up that flight.

“About a half hour before we land, the descent starts. … About ten minutes goes by, and there’s a firecracker-sounding-pop,” Howard recounted. “Obviously, on a plane, that’s not a great sound to hear. I looked around because it sounded like it was right next to me.”

Howard turned to his neighbor, who had apparently been trying to sleep and had a blanket pulled up to his chin. Smelling smoke, he asked the man if he smelled anything, but he didn’t reply.

“I look at him, and it looks like there’s smoke coming out from under his blanket,” said Howard. “I moved his blanket and smoke came out, and then everyone freaked out. People started screaming, and it was chaos.

“When I moved his blanket, he has his hand down his pants, and at first I’m looking at him like, ‘What on earth are you doing with your hand down your pants?’ When he removed his hands from his pants, fire erupted from around his hands, and Jasper [Schuringa, another passenger] tried to put the fire out.”

At this point, Schuringa and a number of flight attendants extinguished the flames, restrained Abdulmutallab and led him to the front of the plane. After the plane landed, Howard and Schuringa were questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security officers and Howard’s clothes were taken for chemical analysis. Howard was not injured in the incident, but some of his clothes were damaged by the fire.

During the flight, Howard says Abdulmutallab was quiet but polite.

“I got on first, so I had to get up to let him in, and when I got up he thanked me; he was really nice,” he said. “Throughout the flight he said he wasn’t feeling good, and he was really nice to the flight attendants. The only thing he really said to me was that he had eaten something bad, and he got up a couple times in the flight. He actually just watched the map, where we were, and he listened to music that they provided on the media player.”

After the commotion began, Abdulmutallab didn’t say a word and was not aggressive according to Howard.

“There was fear on his face, and he was trying to put the flames out himself,” Howard said. “He didn’t resist, and it just seemed like this kid was out of his league, over his head. … He reacted like any other person would have who had fire burning them. It looked like he was stunned.

“He’s 23, like our age, trying to blow up a plane. … He had extremist views and he wanted to kill us all, but he didn’t seem like that bad of a guy. That’s a weird thing to say, but I’ve kind of thought about this; these so-called terrorists are so dehumanized, but my interaction with this kid was that he was an ordinary guy, just a human being.”

While the events of that flight themselves gave Howard plenty to think about, the events that led to his being there were also striking. Coming home from Calvin’s semester in Budapest after visiting an older brother in Prague, Howard had a reservation for the Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that had left the day before. However, Calvin’s travel agent had miscommunicated his reservation numbers and he was told in Budapest that he would have to find a new flight out of Amsterdam. Recalling how he ended up on Flight 253 in seat 19B, Howard began with his decision last spring to study in Budapest.

“I decided to go to Budapest last minute. And then in the spring, my brother got the job in Prague, and he decided to go, so I decided to go and visit him. That morning, the flight that Calvin booked me on, the number they gave me didn’t exist. In Amsterdam when they asked me, ‘Do you want to sit by the window or on the aisle?’ I said aisle, so that got me that seat.

“I may have my own thoughts about why I may have been on that flight, but I don’t think I can ever come to a conclusion,” Howard said. “We’ve discussed that by moving his blanket, I may have stopped the process, but I don’t know. For me, only God really knows why I was on that flight.”

When his clothes were confiscated by the FBI, Howard was given a set of clothes to wear on his flight from Detroit to Grand Rapids, and he finally made it home in time to spend the last few hours of Christmas with his family.

“The only thing I could wear on my feet where these humongous slippers, those bubble slippers in the golf shoe style,” he said. “It was hilarious because I was waiting in line to go through the X-rays, and I had to stand there in my ridiculous clothes, and I had to listen to people’s ridiculous stories about their terrible days and how they didn’t get coffee on their last flight. I thought, ‘You have no idea.’”

Scridb filter