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"A very nasty man has just tried to kill us'

Published Sep. 28, 2005

That, the British Airways pilot explained, is why passengers were bucked from their seats as the plane nosedived.

Biting the captain on his ear and finger, an apparently deranged man tried to seize control of a British Airways jumbo jet bound for Kenya Friday and plunged the plane into a dive that pilots righted only after it had dropped several thousand feet.

"A very nasty man has just tried to kill us all," one of the passengers, Benjamin Goldsmith, quoted the captain as saying after the plane was back under control and the assailant subdued. The passenger said the captain later said that the plane would have crashed had the scuffle lasted four or five seconds longer.

"If we had been courageous three seconds later, it would have been too late," said passenger Gifford Shaw, 45, of Sumter, S.C., who helped subdue the assailant.

Several of the 398 people on board flight BA 2069, including 19 crew members, described a horrifying few minutes as the Boeing 747-400 careened out of control. A nurse at Nairobi Hospital, where seven people from the plane were treated, said passengers in the back were apparently thrown from their seats up against the plane's ceiling.

"What we thought was turbulence hit, and then the plane started doing strange things, veering down, dropping to the left," said Robert Adam, 32, an Internet consultant from New York who was traveling to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. "It was obviously scaring a lot of people."

Todd Engstrom, a doctor from Portland, Ore., described "kind of a shriek and then there was silence."

"I thought it was one of those wind-shear things where a plane just drops like that, but it was almost like a roller coaster," Engstrom told Voice of America radio.

British Airways reported that the plane left London's Gatwick Airport at 11 p.m. About 5{ hours later a man _ reportedly of medium build and dressed casually in jeans and a sweat shirt _ burst into the flight deck and attacked the co-pilot, disengaging the auto-pilot. The captain, William Hagan, 53, a pilot with 30 years of experience, and first officer Richard Webb, 35, worked to subdue the man, identified as 27-year-old Paul Mukoni of Kenya by local news reports, with help from several passengers.

Adam, who was seated in the front section, said that as the plane was pitching he saw two passengers in the first row jump up and dash into the cockpit.

"That made me very nervous," Adam said. "There was a big struggle, a big commotion. Along with a couple of co-pilots they physically dragged him out of the cockpit and laid him in the aisle. Then three passengers sat on him."

During the struggle, first officer Phil Watson, 38, tried to right the plane, which British Airways reported had gone into "sudden maneuvers."

"To me it felt like the plane was really out of control," said Zanne Augur, 32, a business student from Portland, Maine. "It lurched to the left and came back up. I thought it was going to roll at one point."

But the pilots regained control, and the plane landed safely in Nairobi almost three hours later.

"Our crew are trained to deal with every situation, however rare," Mike Street, the British Airways director of customer service, said in a statement. "We are extremely proud of them."

Adam said the crew tied up the man, then tied him to the seat just behind him and Augur.

"They were asking him questions," Adam said. "He wasn't making any sense. He was kind of mumbling. I asked the stewardesses why he did it, and they said he seemed a bit crazy and seemed to be on medication.

"Hopefully," he added, "the rest of my vacation will be uneventful compared to this."

Dola Indids, a spokesman for the Kenyan police, described the suspect as "a mental patient who went berserk."

He was taken to Nairobi Hospital, where he was sedated and placed under police guard, said Isaac O. Litali, the hospital's acting chief executive officer. The suspect suffered an injury to his eye.

Six other people were treated at the hospital, including Hagan, who was treated for bites to his ear and finger, and two other crew members. Three other passengers were treated for minor injuries.

Sue Carr-Hartley, the hospital's director of nursing, described the passengers as "pretty stressed, although the crew were very calm."

She said the suspect was "very aggressive" when he arrived at the hospital, struggling with the police. She said he was sedated to the point of unconsciousness.

"We'll make sure it lasts through the night," she said.