BANGOR, Maine — A former member of the U.S. Air Force on a flight from Paris to Atlanta claimed he had explosives in his luggage and a fake passport, forcing federal air marshals to intervene and the plane to be diverted to Bangor International Airport on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.
Richard Stansberry said government officials told him the man who was detained after the Paris-to-Atlanta flight was diverted to Maine is his son, 26-year-old Derek Stansberry of Riverview, Fla.
The father said government officials questioned him, but he was as perplexed as they were.
“My son’s profession in the military required he live a squeaky-clean life,” Richard Stansberry said.
The father said his son served four years in the Air Force before leaving last year for a job in the private sector. He wouldn’t identify his son’s employer, but said the firm does work for the Air Force.
There were 235 passengers and 13 crew aboard Delta Air Lines Flight 273, which landed safely in Bangor just after 3:30 p.m., said BIA Director Rebecca Hupp.
According to U.S. officials who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, the man claimed to have explosives in his luggage and a fake passport. They said his passport was authentic, and there were no explosives found on board the plane.
Federal officials met the aircraft at the airport. The Transportation Security Administration said the passenger was being interviewed by law enforcement personnel.
In Washington, Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Linda Pepin said the man detained on the plane was a senior airman and worked as an intelligence specialist. She said he was on active duty from June 2005 to 2009 and was last stationed at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Passengers interviewed Tuesday night said there were some tense moments but that everyone remained calm and there was no shouting or ruckus.
After air marshals detained the man, flight attendants asked passengers in the back of the plane to move to empty seats in the front. They also collected passengers’ pillows and blankets, piling the cushions in the back of the plane.
“It was definitely surreal, something you only hear about,” according to Charde Houston, an all-star forward for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx who was on the flight.
It was not immediately clear what the significance was of the pillows being taken from passengers.
After the failed attack aboard a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009, for a period of time there were extra pat-downs before boarding flights, no getting up for the last hour of the flight and some passengers reported being told they couldn’t have items in their laps, including laptops and pillows.
“I got a little bit concerned,” J. Alexander said of his experience on the diverted plane. Also known as Miss J, Alexander is a model and runway coach who has been a judge on Tyra Banks’ reality television show “America’s Next Top Model.”
Asked what he was doing in France, Alexander raised his eyebrows and said, “Minding my business.” He added, however, that an unscheduled stop in Bangor was “a trip I did not plan.”
Ribet Jerome, a 33-year-old engineer from Normandy, France, said Tuesday’s incident was the second time this month that his travel plans were foiled. He originally was supposed to fly to Atlanta a week ago, but that fell through when airports across Europe closed because of the volcano eruption in Iceland.
“It was scary for three hours but we bonded and kept each other’s spirits high,” said Nancy Albertson of Charlottesville, Va. Passengers prayed together as well, she said.
Eventually, the pilot explained the situation, said Adithya Sustry of Chicago.
“He basically came on about an hour after the drama started and said, ‘There’s been a security threat and basically we think we have it under control. But we are going to land in Bangor.’ They did not get any more specific about what the security situation was,” Sustry said.
Houston, 24, said that when Tuesday’s flight landed, FBI agents boarded and helped remove the suspect, who was wearing handcuffs.
“He looked extremely calm, like a blank face. No emotion,” Houston said of the man who was removed.
Richard Stansberry, of Apollo Beach, Fla., said he has not yet been able to speak to his son.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think they’d let him call me,” the elder Stansberry said. “In a situation like this, the government is doing what it is supposed to do.”
NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, did not launch any military fighters in response to the threat, spokesman John Cornelio said. “By the time we were brought into the equation,” the passenger was already under the control of air marshals, Cornelio said from Colorado.
After landing in Bangor, the aircraft was taken to an isolated part of the runway and the passengers got onto buses and were taken to the International Arrivals building for customs clearance, said Hupp, the airport director. The passengers were not permitted to leave the secure International Arrivals building until 9 p.m.
According to Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards, the agencies that were called in to investigate the threat included the TSA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bangor Police Department’s Emergency Ordnance Disposal team, or bomb squad. He referred more specific questions to the FBI.
Delta attempted to get the passengers to Atlanta on Tuesday night but was unsuccessful, spokesman Paul Skrbec said.
The airline instead was paying to have the passengers put up in area hotels, was purchasing their meals and planned to provide vouchers for future travel, he said.
The airline said the passengers are expected to leave Maine at 10:30 this morning and arrive in Atlanta after 1 p.m.
BIA is prepared to deal with diverted flights, Hupp said.
“We are accustomed to receiving [diverted] flights in Bangor on short notice,” she said. “We do have a protocol in place and it was followed.”
BIA is the first large U.S. airport for incoming European flights, and it’s the last U.S. airport for outgoing flights, with uncluttered skies and one of the longest runways on the East Coast. Aircraft use the airport when there are mechanical problems, medical emergencies or unruly passengers.
Bangor Daily News writer Dawn Gagnon and Associated Press writers Glenn Adams, Harry Weber, David Sharp, Clarke Canfield, Lolita C. Baldor, Anne Flaherty, Eileen Sullivan, Joan Lowy and John Curran contributed to this report.