I’m a flight attendant, not a cop. But on a recent flight from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, I was forced to wrestle a passenger to the floor, restrain her with airline-issued flex cuffs and turn her over to Brazilian police.
The incident began about 4 a.m. The aircraft cabin was dark, save for the softly flickering images from a few dozen seat-back entertainment screens.
Meal trays had long since been served and collected, leaving most of the 230 passengers sleeping peacefully, lulled by the purring General Electric turbofan engines.
Of the 11 flight attendants on board, some chatted quietly in the galley and others napped in the crew bunk room or performed mandatory walk-arounds through the quiet cabin.
All was as it should have been more than halfway through the eight-hour flight on a Boeing 777 about 35,000 feet above the Amazonian jungle.
Suddenly and without provocation, a petite Brazilian woman shattered the silence with an ear-splitting ... Bible verse. In Portuguese.
The response from passengers who had been startled awake by this rendition of Psalm 23 was swift and ungodly.
“Shut up, woman! We’re trying to sleep!”
“Are you crazy?”
She continued reading aloud from the Good Book, claiming she had been delivered unto us by a higher power.
Reading lights flicked on, tiny spotlights illuminating furious faces. Then came a chorus of flight attendant call chimes: ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!
Crew members rushed through the aisles, hoping to silence the woman before things got out of hand. There she was in seat 32E, wedged between two scowling passengers, rocking.
She clutched the Bible with both hands.
We asked her — in English and Portuguese — to read silently. She did not respond. She never looked up. Never made eye contact. Never acknowledged anyone or anything except the Bible from which she continued to read with gusto.
As angry passengers clamored for a resolution, one of my colleagues leaned forward and snatched the Bible from her.
That put an end to it. The woman sat quietly in her seat, having been told her Bible would be stored safely in the cockpit until landing.
She calmed down. At one point, she appeared to fall asleep.
But about 90 minutes before landing, as I prepared the breakfast service in the business-class galley, I heard a commotion and stepped into the aisle to investigate.
The problematic passenger had pushed past the main-cabin divider curtains and was marching toward the front of the aircraft.
I planted myself in the middle of the business-class aisle, arms stretched sideways to restrict her forward progress. She stopped, glared and pointed an index finger at me.
“You must give me my Bible,” she said. “The people … they need to hear...”
I replied, “We told you we will return your Bible upon landing in Rio.”
Defiantly, she said, “I’m going to the cockpit.”
Anyone who has flown commercially since 9/11 knows you can’t even joke about going to the cockpit when a plane is airborne.
It’s like using the B-word. If you say you have a bomb, flight attendants are required to report the incident to the captain. Even if we think you’re joking. Even if we know you’re joking.
When it comes to airplane safety, nothing is left to interpretation.
As if threatening to enter the cockpit weren’t enough, the diminutive woman suddenly thrust both hands into my chest and sent me pinwheeling backward.
I regained my balance, grabbed the woman by the shoulders, pulled her to the floor and pinned her.
A colleague handed me a set of plastic flex cuffs. Together, we applied the restraints to the woman’s wrists. Then I marched her down the aisle, through a sea of wide-eyed passengers (some cheered) and seated her in an unoccupied row at the back of the aircraft.
She wasn’t going anywhere. Her hands were cuffed behind her, and she was constantly monitored by four flight attendants who were assigned to work in the main cabin.
Once we seated her, she hung her head in defeat. She never uttered another word.
And we never knew what prompted the outburst. At one point she told me that "God sent me here to speak … and everyone must listen to me.”
When we finally landed, she was given her Bible and was whisked away by Brazilian authorities. I do not know what happened to her.
I do know I’m a flight attendant, not a cop. But every so often I’m forced to act like one.
Hester is a flight attendant for a major airline.