A Nigerian man with possible terrorist ties sneaked an explosive onto a trans-Atlantic Northwest Airlines flight on Friday and tried to ignite it as the plane prepared to land in Detroit, federal officials said.
The device, described by officials as a mixture of powder and liquid, failed to fully detonate. Flight 253 with 278 passengers aboard was 20 minutes from the airport when it sounded like a firecracker had exploded, witnesses said.
"It sounded like a firecracker in a pillowcase," said Peter Smith, a passenger from the Netherlands. "First there was a pop, and then (there) was smoke."
One passenger jumped over others and tried to subdue the man. Shortly afterward, the suspect was taken to a front row seat with his pants cut off and his legs burned. One passenger who tried to subdue him also appeared to have been burned.
Federal officials said the man wanted to bring the plane down. "We believe it was an attempted act of terrorism," said a White House official who declined to be identified.
"This was the real deal," said Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who was briefed on the incident and said something had gone wrong with the explosive device, which he described as somewhat sophisticated. "This could have been devastating," King said.
It was unclear how the man, identified by federal officials as Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, 23, managed to get the explosive on the plane, an Airbus A330 that had originated in Nigeria with a stop in Amsterdam. A senior administration official said the government did not know whether the man had the capacity to take down the plane.
The incident was reminiscent of convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes, but was subdued by other passengers. Reid is serving a life sentence.
A senior Department of Homeland Security official said that the device Mudallad had on him was "more incendiary than explosive" and that he had tried to ignite the device or mixture to cause a fire as the airliner was approaching Detroit.
Mudallad told law enforcement authorities, the official said, that he had explosive powder taped to his leg and that he had used a syringe of chemicals to mix with the powder to try to cause an explosion.
ABC News and NBC News reported that Mudallad attends University College London, where he studied engineering.
Although not on the TSA's "no-fly" list, Mudallad's name appears to be included in the government's records of terrorism suspects, authorities said.
Mudallad told federal investigators that he had ties to al-Qaida and traveled to Yemen to collect the incendiary device and instructions on how to use it, according to an official briefed on the case. But authorities have yet to verify the claim, and they expect to conduct several more interviews before they determine whether he is credible, the official said.
By all accounts, the suspect was immediately tackled by at least one man, and several other passengers ran toward him immediately trying to put the fire out.
"It was a fire. It wasn't just a firecracker; it was a fire," said Calvin Kakar of New York, who was seated a few rows in front of the suspect. "We heard a pop, and the next thing you know it was a fire."
Passengers yelled for water, flight attendants ran to get the fire extinguisher, and the fire was soon doused.
Michigan native Melinda Dennis was sitting in first class when the suspect was placed in a seat across the aisle from her.
"He didn't say anything," said Dennis, who lives in Europe and was connecting to a flight to Arizona. "He was burned very severely on his leg. … He was very calm and didn't show any reaction to pain."
Once on the ground, the plane was immediately guided to the end of a runway, where it was surrounded by police cars and emergency vehicles and searched by a bomb-disabling robot.
One federal official who requested anonymity said in an interview that the man suffered severe second-degree burns but was expected to survive. Tracy Justice, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Health System, confirmed that a passenger from the plane was admitted to the hospital but would not provide further details.
President Barack Obama was kept informed as he spent Christmas with family and friends in Hawaii. After a secure conference call, he was given several followup briefings on paper.
John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, convened an interagency meeting in the late afternoon to go over what was known about the incident and what should be done to take precautions.
A Department of Homeland Security official said the Transportation Security Administration uses layers of security measures at the nation's airports, and would be tightening them as a result of the incident in Detroit.
These measures — some visible to passengers, some not — include bomb-sniffing dog teams, additional carry-on luggage and passenger screening measures, and plainclothes behavioral-detection specialists working inside airport terminals.
The official said there were no immediate plans to elevate the nation's threat level, which has been at orange since 2006, as a result of the Detroit incident.
One man who witnessed the incident said he's proud of how passengers reacted.
"It was the time to be proud to be an American for sure," said Syed Jafry of Holland, Ohio, who had flown from the United Arab Emirates.
Information from the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press was used in this report.