Over Detroit Skies
Roey Rosenblith is the Founder and Director of Village Energy (Uganda) Limited, a startup solar company that he runs out of Kampala, Uganda with his business partner Abu Musuuza. Village Energy is dedicated to providing renewable energy solutions and services to the 80% of Africans that currently lack electricity. On December 25, 2009 he was flying home on NW Flight 253, en-route from Kampala to visit his family in St. Louis. The following is his account of events that transpired on that day.
I was on my third in-flight movie when the screaming started, shattering my tired half-awake travel state. I had gone from watching Up to Inglorious Basterds and had decided to try rounding things off with Land of the Lost. That was when my fellow passenger Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab decided to ignite his explosives 19 rows ahead of me.
I had been traveling for more than a day, starting in Kampala, Uganda, where I've been creating a solar lighting company called Village Energy, and living what I thought, up until that point, was a fairly adventurous life. I had woken up 12 hours prior at 4 a.m. in my apartment on the outskirts of Kampala to fly to Nairobi for a 10 hour layover, and then finally on to Amsterdam to catch my flight to Detroit, where I would make my final connection to visit my family in St. Louis. But that didn't happen, at least not that day.
At 6 a.m. CET, I had arrived in Amsterdam. It's a beautiful airport, just as you would imagine the Dutch would design it, boxy and metallic architecture, silver roofs and granite floors with bright yellow signs marking the terminals extending from central hubs in every direction. Orderly and calm, the opposite of my chaotic life in Uganda. At Amsterdam we went through security, and what seemed like the time was good security. At the gate everyone was interviewed by a team of around 10 personal screeners, who asked us a battery of questions in quick succession. This was something I had only experienced at Tel-Aviv airports and it came as quite a surprise, but one that I welcomed. After personal screening we passed through metal detectors and a baggage X-ray. Even though I had all the change out of my pockets, cell phones, and belt removed I still set off the detector (perhaps the rivets in my jeans). As soon as that happened I was frisked so thoroughly by the young Dutch security guard that I began to wonder if he was enjoying himself. Later on when I read the news reports I realized that if Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab had the explosives stashed in his underwear, even if he had been thoroughly frisked the only way the guard would have noticed anything is if he literally put his hands down the guys pants, and searched his groin.
While we waited to board I chatted with a young British woman going to visit her family on vacation in Florida. She was nervous because this was the first flight she had made on her own, and thus it had been severely delayed because of weather. To my left sat a Nigerian woman and her two year old son, annoyed with all the warm clothes that he was very unused to wearing. Across from me was an American guy from Ohio State that had previously spent a semester in Spain and was now coming back from a winter trip to visit his Spanish girlfriend. We talked about simple nothings, what we did, what we thought about traveling in Europe. The British girl offered to share some snacks with me. The two year old Nigerian boy pulled on my beard and grabbed my cheek, seemingly fascinated by my facial hair and unfamiliar looks. His mother said they were flying from Lagos to Baltimore. Across from us next to the Ohio State student was an older Nigerian woman wearing a black robe and hijab. She seemed to speak little English and I assumed that she was the young boy's grandmother, at least she smiled at him that way. In front of us a tall unassuming and stylishly dressed Dutch fellow talked on his cell phone. When I played the memories back in my head I realize that's the only image I had of Jasper Schuringa, the man who may have saved all of our lives.
Nothing particularly memorable happened once I got on the plane. It was snowing heavily in Amsterdam and the takeoff was delayed so the plane could be de-iced. I remember looking out the window at the sunrise as melting crystals kept falling across the window disappearing against a stream from the spray gun's hot chemical bath. We took off about an hour late. For the next seven hours as we crossed the Atlantic nothing eventful happened.
Just after they announced that we would be landing I heard two people yelling, screaming, then it grew to a muffled chorus of yells and cries, the words "Fire, there's a fire," drifted back to where I was sitting in economy window seat 38J. I looked at my companion in next seat over, 38I. He was young man in his early 20s, finance major from the University of Ohio who had been studying in Milan. He looked more confused than afraid tilting his head incredulously trying to figure out what was happening. As I recount this I can't even remember his name. Everything up until that point was just so normal and unmemorable. The niceties shared as we sat down. "I work in Uganda starting a solar power business; I'm a student taking a semester abroad." As we listened to the screams I touched his arm and wondered if he was going to be the last person I ever spoke with. My Ugandan cell phone was dead, and probably not going to work in Detroit, so calling my family once last time was not going to happen. I looked out the window and saw nothing but thick white clouds, and water droplets rushing past. The simple fact that there was no escape from whatever was happening quickly set in.
Suddenly a female flight attendant, a middle-aged Asian woman with shoulder length black hair, rushed past our aisle form the front with incredible speed, grabbed something from one of the overhead compartments in the back, and then ran back up the opposite aisle. Later I would find out she was grabbing a fire extinguisher. I was filled with an intense sense of trepidation, the instinct to run was overwhelming, but there was nowhere to run to in this metal tube filled with almost 300 people. All you could do was look around at your fellow travelers, who were doing just what you were doing: trying not to panic, looking around for some clue in the eyes and faces of other passengers if anyone knew what was happening .
Eventually the screams and sounds of struggle subdued. A voice came on the intercom, a male flight attendant who earlier had served me my breakfast and lunch, then collected my trash. In a voice that was struggling to stay calm he said, "Everything is under control! Your federally trained flight attendants have the situation under control. We are now landing. The landing gear is down! Stay in your seats, we are getting ready to land." Suddenly the plane began a sharp descent. The Asian flight attendant came back to where we were and took her seat opposite the first row in the economy area waving her hands in a downward motion for people to stay seated, and then slumping against the wall before strapping herself in.
As we began descending the worst fear I have ever experienced in my life set in. Not knowing what had happened it was unclear that we were going to land safely. Was there a mechanical failure? Was the fire inside or outside the plane. How did it start? Electrical problems? Why had people been screaming? Did they look out the window and see the wing on fire? How did the smoke spread to inside the cabin? What were our chances of surviving? For ten more minutes as we descended nothing was answered, we all seemed to be trapped in a kind of mental limbo, incapable of speech. Across the aisle from me there was a young mother of Indian descent and her son who looked to be around five. I smiled at him in some sort of attempt to make him believe that everything was normal, he smiled back at me, seeming to be blissfully unaware that his short time on Earth could soon be coming to an end.
As we made our way through the thick cloud cover I begin to see patches of the green and gray, the drab suburbs of Detroit, they seemed as beautiful as a light house beckoning to a ship lost in a stormy sea. For the first time an intense fear gave way to the hope that we might all live to see another day. As the land got closer, that hope grew, and when we hit the runway the airplane broke out in grateful applause.
Another male flight attendant with glasses came in, "For everyone in the back, we had an incident, someone tried to start a fire, but we took care of it. The authorities will be coming on the plane, everyone stay in your seats until they get off." I remember telling my seat mate, the Ohio State, that we weren't going to be going anywhere for a while. Everyone is going to need to get screened -- this guy was trying to blow up the plane.
As we began to taxi down the runway, I could see yellow emergency fire vehicles coming in after the plane. After them a white SUV with flashing police sirens on top. The plane taxied to a gate, and immediately up ahead I could see security officials enter the plane and take someone off. Shortly afterward a young man with sandy blonde hair and a striped green-and-white shirt stood up and walked out as well. As he made his way down the aisle, there was more applause and a few cheers.
For about thirty more minutes we stayed in our seats. An old African man stood up, to pull something out of his overhead compartment. Everyone started yelling at him, but he explained he needed his medication. A flight attendant told him if he didn't sit down he would the next one escorted off by security officials. Finally the captain spoke, "We apologize for this happening, and we wish incidents like this would never occur. Apparently someone brought firecrackers on the plane. Please prepare to exit, we realize some of you need to make connecting flights and we apologize for the delay. If Detroit is your final destination, please stay seated and let those who are making connecting flights get off first." No dice, everyone got up at once.
As we were exiting the plane to my immediate right I saw Jasper Schuringa being attended by paramedics and police, his hands already wrapped in bandages from what appeared to be intense burns. We made our way down to customs, many people complaining about the delay, and not being able to get home for Christmas. But when we got to the customs gate, instead of being met by the usual lines and immigration personnel we found nobody there. We were met by police officers who led us straight past customs to the baggage collection area.
There were hundreds of police officers; eventually they told us there were 250 agents. About 20 of them were directly in front of us, creating a barrier that funneled us into a corner behind the first two luggage carousels. There was no explanation, no time table, and no communication of what was to happen next. People attempting to call their families were told immediately to shut off their phones. When officers were asked what was happening they politely said they didn't know, but were under orders to keep us all in this area until further notice.
As the first hour went by we begin to settle in. I found the British girl who had been sitting in the same row as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab. We all just kept talking to each other, trying to piece a story together as to what happened. Slowly a picture began to emerge. After the announcement that we were landing started, there was a popping sound, like a gun that went off. The next thing was a three foot orange flame from where the suspect was sitting, between an old woman and another man. The man he was sitting next to immediately put this guy in a headlock and then someone, presumably Jasper Schuringa, jumped from two rows back into the man's seat and pulled him into the aisle grabbing whatever was on fire and trying to put it out. People started screaming and passing up bottles of water, then they put a blanket over it, but the blanket caught on fire. Others described the water having very little effect, making a sizzling sound. Apparently the fire extinguisher was what put it out. They stripped him at some point, pulled down his pants and took off his shirt. They then pulled the guy up front and tied him down.
"Firecrackers, the guy was crazy, you 'd have to be crazy to bring something like that on the plane."
Most people seemed to be in denial of what I saw was evident. This guy wanted to kill all of us, he had wanted to blow up the plane. When I said this, they would just shake their heads; even those that had seen it happen didn't want to believe it.
We stayed in the baggage claim area for 3 hours without any word of what happened next. We were only allowed into the bathroom one person at a time by an officer who guarded the door. Behind the line of our immediate security detail there were hundreds of other police officers moving around back and forth, as if they were on they were on the night watch guarding a military base from a potential threat. What they were doing was unclear. The only thing that I recall happening is seeing an Indian guy off to the side, an older gentleman wearing a gray suit leaning against the wall. Suddenly there was a police officer next to him pulling his arms back and pulling handcuffs on him. The man didn't struggle, the bags which seemed to be his were left there, and he and the police officer disappeared around the corner.
Eventually plain clothes officers with necklace badges appeared. We assumed these guys were the head honchos everyone was waiting for, FBI and Homeland Security folks. Shortly after they arrived we were suddenly moved to another location.
They marched everyone back across the customs desks, into an adjacent corridor. After we had all been moved into this rather tight place we waited for about half an hour. An officer then started to talk to us, his voice echoing down the hall.
"We have had a serious incident today, we thank you for your patience but we have to wait and sort this all through. We realize you have been delayed and want to get you home to your loved ones."
This prompted some angry responses, some passengers demanded to see their lawyers, others said they wanted food and water. This last demand was answered affirmatively; the officers promised they were securing snacks and water for everyone. The officer continued:
"But every single one of you will need to be interviewed today. Before you go home. How many people here don't speak English? Raise your hand."
This last message prompted a bit of laughter. Most people seemed to be able to speak English but there were probably a handful of older and younger people that didn't. Next to where I was sitting there was a mother and daughter from Wisconsin that had just adopted two Ethiopian children, a boy and girl of about six. Neither spoke English, and apparently was this their first airplane trip anywhere. Their adopted mother was very hopeful that they had no idea what was happening. In our little group there was a Somali guy, apparently an electrical engineer who had recently received US citizenship, who offered them comfort in the few Amharic words he knew.
Suddenly a tall plain clothes officer appeared. Oddly he was wearing a sweater, athletic sorts, and sneakers. As if he had been called in mid workout. Only his necklace badge made it evident he was with the authorities. As he was walking down the corridor, he asked people a new question, "We have been told someone was videotaping the incident. If you were videotaping the incident can you please make yourself known." A few people around me confirmed that they saw a guy videotaping the whole thing. I told them they should talk to the officers and help identify the guy. A few got up and followed the police officer around, searching for him. I still don't know if they found him.
For the next twenty minutes I talked to a young American-Chinese girl named Jena who was working in Vienna for a renewable energy foundation, called Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP). Since I was starting a renewable energy company, Village Energy, to provide affordable electricity to folks in East Africa, we had something in common. We joked this was an odd place to network, but nonetheless exchanged business cards and even talked about the recent Copenhagen UN Climate Conference and strategies for getting affordable renewable power to the developing world. We were joined by our Somali compatriot, who as an electrical engineer who had lived in Africa had some interesting insights. But near the end of our talk, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the severity of what took place and said "I don't think this guy was crazy. I think he wanted to blow us up. Everyone seems to be in denial but that's the only thing that makes sense, he wanted to kill all of us." No one said anything in response.
Soon we were directed back to the baggage claim area and officers started bringing everyone's luggage on carts. Three officers then appeared with security K-9 dogs emerged and systematically had the dogs sniff all our hand luggage. Apparently over the last few hours all the check in bags had also been meticulously searched. Next up were the interviews. They had set up chairs and one and two at a time every passenger was screened and their accounts written down. I gave my account of everything I experienced then was ushered back into customs.
As I gave the customs agent my passport, I asked him if he knew what happened to the guy who started the fire. The customs agent stamped my passport and said, "All I know is, he's never going to see the light of day."
After checking with the Delta desk and booking a new flight, I was given a hotel to stay, at the nearby Embassy Suites, and a dinner voucher. Waiting for the shuttle I met three other people from the flight, an American electrical engineer with Schlumberger and an African-Dutch couple who were moving to New York. We got to the hotel and went up to our rooms to shower but first made plans to have dinner together. When I got to my hotel room I called my parents. I had borrowed someone else's cell phone to let them know I was alright earlier. My mother had been at the airport in St. Louis waiting to pick me up.
"Where you on that plane with the crazy guy?" She had asked.
"Yes, but I'm okay. Everything is fine. I'm fine. I love you and I'm booking a flight home."
I called again from my hotel room, just as I turned on CNN. Both my mother and CNN told me the same thing at the same time, he was in Al-Qaeda, he had explosives, a harsh and frightening reality suddenly set in as my suspicions were confirmed. I and everyone on that flight had come very close to being nothing but pieces of charred bone and fragments of flesh, identifiable only by DNA testing and dental records.
After showering I and the three other passengers had dinner together at the hotel. It was strange how normal it all seemed. Just a group of young folks, stranded on a Christmas flight, enjoying each other's company. But I do have to say, when I looked around me, at these people, at the hotel's décor, the trees outside the hotel, there was something sharp, something vital, something beautiful to all of it. There is something about having this gift of life, of surviving someone else's desire for martyrdom and death.
It's been less than two days since all of this has happened. We still have a lot to learn about who Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was and what made him into a human bomb. From what I know the story is particularly tragic, because on a continent where most people had so little he seemed to have so much. He made up an elite group of perhaps .1% of the population. Not only did he study abroad he studied to be an engineer. He could have come back to Nigeria and put his skills to use in a wide array of fields: agriculture, health, transportation, telecommunications, he could have created solutions that would help some of the poorest people on earth. Even if he didn't want to do that, with a wealthy family and well connected father, the world was his oyster. Why would he throw all that away to follow this horrific path? When he studied in England, what happened there to infuse this hatred into his heart?
I've spent the last five years of my life dedicated to engineering products that would help the world's poor. I wonder if I had ever had the opportunity to meet Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and talk shop with, discuss the agro-processing devices and small solar lighting systems ... supply chains and accessing rural markets ... that he might have seen that at least this American was not his enemy. Or maybe it wouldn't have mattered at all; how can you reason with what is inherently unreasonable. I suppose that all we can do, all I can do, is not give up.
In a few weeks my vacation is over. I'm going back to Uganda, to work with my Ugandan business partner Abu Musuuza, who by the way is a practicing Muslim (and I, by the way, am a seldom practicing Jew). With our American investors, Ryan Allis and Ron Boehm, our company Village Energy is going to provide light and power to as many people as we can get it to. And even though al Qaeda tried, I'll be damned if they manage to stop me or anyone else on that flight from going out and achieving our life's ambitions.