A crazed Kenyan passenger broke into the cockpit of a British Airways jumbo jet early Friday and grabbed the controls, sending the plane plummeting toward the ground before the crew regained command.
Many of the 379 passengers aboard the Boeing 747-400 en route from London to Nairobi screamed and prayed as they were jolted out of their early morning slumber and hysteria swept the cabin.
“It was ridiculously frightening,” said Zanne Augur, 32, of Portland, Maine, who witnessed the whole thing from her seat on the upper deck of the jet’s Club Class cabin.
British Airways said the airliner’s automatic pilot disengaged during the cockpit struggle with the intruder, identified as 27-year-old Paul Mukoni by local news reports. Even as the plane went into a nose dive, two passengers in the front row of Club Class rushed into the cockpit to help subdue Mukoni, said Augur and her companion, Robert Adam.
The life-or-death scuffle lasted about two minutes, they said, before Mukoni was wrestled down and dragged out of the cockpit by crew and passengers. Three passengers sat on Mukoni while flight attendants bound his hands and feet with tape, said Adam, 32, of New York.
Reports that Mukoni had a suicide note could not be confirmed.
Describing the plane’s terrifying descent, Adam said: “It was as if the plane hit very bad turbulence. It veered to the left, then right, and dropped. Nobody knew what was going on.”
“I was terrified, particularly because I have traveled so much; I know what turbulence feels like,” said Augur, who said there was an intense rattling noise as the aircraft dipped. “I felt that there was something instinctively wrong. We had that feeling just like the bottom of your stomach had dropped out . . . like being on a roller coaster.”
Many of the passengers were traveling to Kenya for safari and beach holidays over the New Year. Adam and Augur, who were headed to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, spoke by phone from Nairobi’s Inter-Continental Hotel, where they were spending the night because Augur’s luggage had been misplaced.
Jemima Khan, the wife of Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan, was on board with her two infant sons and other relatives, as was British singer Bryan Ferry and his wife, Lucy Helmore.
“Everyone was asleep when suddenly the plane went into this violent, violent dive, like shuddering, and went very, very steeply downward and everyone was woken up by screaming--there were grown men screaming,” Khan’s brother, Benjamin Goldsmith, told the London-based Sky News. “It was quite a violent situation.
“I don’t think there was a single person on that airplane who did not believe we were about to crash,” Goldsmith added, noting that Mukoni appeared to be hysterical.
Four passengers and a crew member were injured in the incident. British Airways Capt. William Hagan, 53, suffered bite wounds.
“In the struggle, the intruder bit my ear and finger, but my first officer, Richard Webb, and I managed to get him out of the cockpit while my other first officer, Phil Watson, flew the aircraft,” Hagan said in an airline statement. “With the help of some passengers, we managed to restrain the intruder.”
Adam said that Hagan sounded “out of breath” after he regained control of the aircraft and explained to passengers: “A madman has just tried to kill us.”
With two hours of flight time remaining, the intruder--described by witnesses as burly and strong--was placed in the seat directly behind Adam and Augur.
“He mumbled a little bit,” said Augur, who overheard Mukoni tell the airline personnel that he had begun his journey in Lyons, France, and transited via London’s Gatwick Airport.
British Airways said that the cockpit door normally is kept locked during takeoff and landing but that it is open during the flight. Officials confirmed that the airline had launched an investigation into the scare, adding that its safety procedures will be reviewed.
On arrival at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport around 10:15 a.m. local time, those injured in the ordeal were rushed to Nairobi Hospital.
Hospital spokesman Isaac Litali told reporters: “Mostly they suffered minor soft-tissue injuries, bruises, and one had a fractured ankle.”
Mukoni was under police guard at Nairobi Hospital. Police said that preliminary investigations indicate the incident wasn’t being treated as a suspected hijacking attempt but rather as a psychiatric case. Hospital officials said his mental state was still being assessed.
“We should not treat him as a criminal--the matter is still under investigation,” Kenyan police spokesman Dola Indidis said.
Adam and Augur said the incident would not deter them from enjoying the rest of the their holiday.
“We hope now the worst is over and we can get on with our hike,” Augur said. “We are glad to be alive. Our number wasn’t up.”
Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in London contributed to this report.