Mix-up over Saudi students diverts flightTurns out, it was three UND students newly arrived from Saudi Arabia who caused suspicions on a Minneapolis-Grand Forks commuter jet Sunday, leading to a diverted landing to Fargo and a bomb scare of sorts. Turns out, it was a big mix-up.
By: By Stephen J. Lee , Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun
Turns out, it was three UND students newly arrived from Saudi Arabia who caused suspicions on a Minneapolis-Grand Forks commuter jet Sunday, leading to a diverted landing to Fargo and a bomb scare of sorts.
Turns out, it was a big mix-up.
Peter Johnson, spokes-man for UND, said the three are Saudi Arabian men who just arrived on these shores, ready to take English-as-a-second-language classes before beginning their aviation studies.
Their plan is to become pilots, part of a new contract with the Saudi government, Johnson said.
Their Middle Eastern appearance and language and watchful flight attendants in the post-9/11 air travel world, led to the Pinnacle Airlines 4375 making an emergency landing at Fargo’s Hector International Airport about 10 a.m. Sunday.
The three men were detained, each placed in the back of Fargo police squad cars, and questioned for hours, one fellow passenger said.
The flight was a 50-passenger Delta connection aircraft that left Minneapolis at 9:15 a.m. Sunday with 20 passengers.
Pablo de Leon, a UND researcher in the space studies program, was returning from Washington and noticed the heightened concern about the three men in the Minneapolis airport where he was catching the same Delta link.
“They were stopped by two police wearing civilian clothes at the Minneapolis airport. They checked their passports and their student visas and all of that. I saw that because I was just in front of them in one of the chairs. These two officers interviewed them for 20 minutes or so. It seemed everything was fine and they just let them on to the airplane. I didn’t see anything suspicious.”
But in the air, once one of the Saudis visited the bathroom — “Other passengers went to the bathroom, too,” — things began to change, de Leon said. “About 10 or 15 minutes later, I could feel the airplane was decreasing altitude and the pilot said we should get ready to land.”
“The crew had identified what I would call a ‘suspicious condition’ in the lavatory onboard,” Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said Sunday, according to news reports.
It appeared a fire extinguisher or smoke detector had been fiddled with, Johnson said he was told.
As the plane landed, it taxied away from the control tower and passengers were quickly disembarked, de Leon said.
The flight crew hustled the passengers about 300 yards from the plane, so there was clearly a level of concern, de Leon said.
“I kind of approached them and asked them where they were going,” de Leon said of the three men. “Their English was very, kind of basic. They said they were coming to UND to study English and aviation.”
It was cold and all the passengers were standing on the tarmac for about 20 minutes, while flight crew members handed out blankets, de Leon said.
He didn’t have time to find out where the three men were from, except they spoke “in a Middle Eastern language,” de Leon said.
“As soon as I started talking to them, police came,” de Leon said. Fargo police squads streamed over and the three men were put into three squads.
The other passengers were bussed to the airport’s terminal, where he was able to watch through the windows as the three men were kept in the police cars for several hours, de Leon said.
“They gave us pizza and soda pop,” he said.
It was mid-afternoon before it was over.
“One of the FBI offices came over at the end of this ordeal and said, well, they checked everything and there were no explosives on board and everything was fine and that they were sorry about the delay.”
The passengers, minus the three students, were bussed to the Grand Forks International Airport, arriving about the same time, 5 p.m., as the three Saudi men in a separate vehicle, de Leon said.
A UND vehicle and staff member arrived to pick up the three students, de Leon said.
That was Chuck Pineo, chief operating officer and executive director of the UND Aerospace Foundation, who works with new students to introduce them to the campus, Johnson said.
The three Saudis are part of a contract signed just a month ago with the Saudi Ministry of the Interior for UND to train pilots, Johnson said.
For years, UND had many Saudi students, sometimes dozens at a time. But after 9/11, there was an awkwardness that led to reduced numbers of Saudi aviation pilots.
Shortly after 9/11, in fact, a northeast North Dakota man was prosecuted after he slugged a Saudi UND student at a Grand Forks bar, just because, he said, he thought the student might be a terrorist.
Bruce Smith, dean of the UND aerospace school, talked Monday to the three Saudi students, who were perplexed by all the commotion, Johnson said.
“We’re assuming that folks acted in good faith and we realize these are different times in terms of aviation than just a few years ago,” Johnson said.
The Saudis will be able to begin the English courses soon, part of an independent ELS Language Center on campus that works with many students who need to improve their English to study in whatever discipline they choose, Johnson said.
The Saudi students will be staying on campus.
De Leon chalks it all up to confusion by the Saudi men because they are new to America and two of them can’t speak much English.
Stephen Lee is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald,
which is owned by Forum Communications Co.