By Elizabeth Chuck
September 13, 2011
Shoshana Hebshi will never forget where she was on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
She and two other airline passengers were handcuffed and strip-searched after flying into Detroit on Sunday.
No charges were filed against Hebshi, a self-described “half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio,” or the two men sitting next to her, who were flying in from Denver when the crew of Frontier Airlines Flight 623 alerted authorities that they were reportedly behaving suspiciously.
In a blog post titled “Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit,” Hebshi, an American citizen, told her tale of temporary detainment, which she had begun to share with Twitter followers in real-time — until handcuffs were placed on her wrists.
Hebshi, a writer and editor and mother of twin sons, didn’t know the other two passengers in Row 12. They were Indian men, she wrote. And they didn’t know each other. But they got a lot closer when they were all crammed into the back of a squad car.
What happened, according to Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk, begins with a bathroom.
“One of the males, who was not feeling well, got up to use the restroom during the flight. The other male got up at approximately the same time to use the restroom. The female remained seated in her row,” the FBI said in a statement.
Crews reported the men sitting next to Hebshi were spending “an extraordinarily long time” in the plane’s lavatory, Kowalchuk said.
Amid heightened security fears on the tenth anniversary of the 2001 attacks, no one was taking chances.
Authorities were notified, Kowalchuk told msnbc.com, and F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to escort the planeas it landed in Detroit. The plane landed on a remote tarmac and waited for backup.
Hebshi did not return emails from msnbc.com, and had taken down contact information on her blog Tuesday. The names of the other passengers detained on Sunday have not been released. But Hebshi recalled the incident in great detail on her blog; the FBI did not comment on the specifics of the detainment.
- After the plane landed, far from any terminals, the captain told everyone to remain in their seats or “there would be consequences,” Hebshi wrote. A group of officers had gathered outside.
- “A little concerned about this situation. Plane moved away from terminal surrounded by cops. Crew is mum. Passengers can’t get up,” she tweeted at the time.
- Still unaware that she and her seatmates were the ones police were coming for, Hebshi’s concerns at that point were more mundane. “We had been waiting on the plane for a half hour. I had to pee. I wanted to get home and see my family. And I wanted someone to tell us what was going on,” she wrote.
- “Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen.”
Plane is stormed
Hebshi sent one more tweet about armed officers as they stormed the plane.
They stopped at Hebshi’s row, yelling at the three passengers to get up. Hebshi asked if she could bring her phone; one of the officers told her she couldn’t as he yanked her out of her seat.
“What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers!” she quipped in her blog post.
The three were asked if they had any explosives on them, and then put in the back of a squad car next to the plane.
“The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on,” Hebshi wrote. “I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away.”
Locked up and strip-searched
Meanwhile, the other 113 passengers on board were bused from the tarmac, some to nearby police headquarters for questioning, and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in to inspect luggage from the plane, a passenger told The Associated Press. Nothing suspicious was found.
Hebshi and her seatmates’ next stop would be holding cells at the airport police station. Police interviewed them one at a time, according to her post.
“I heard the officers discuss my impending strip search. They needed to bring in a female officer. At least they were following protocol, or something to that nature. Still, could this really be happening?” she wrote.
Hours later, after being strip-searched and interrogated by the FBI and Homeland Security, Hebshi was allowed to leave.
An agent thanked her for being cooperative, she wrote. “‘It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.’ He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like. He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.”
Among the other incidents: An American Airlines flight from Los Angeles also reported a security threat Sunday, and was shadowed by F-16s “out of an abundance of caution,” the FBI said in a statement; and in Dallas, a rented moving truck parked at a curb at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport driven by a crew member of the Discovery Channel show “Sons of Guns” also caused a scare. Investigators were suspicious because the driver said, “I got a couple of guns,” but FBI said he was just waiting for a co-worker.
As for Hebshi, she wrote that she won’t be flying again on Sept. 11.
“I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance,” she wrote. “I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying — as hard as it may be — not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress.”
According to a Washington Post interview, Hebshi said she’s been overwhelmed by the response to her blog, and that despite what happened, she’s glad the incident has started a conversation.
Frontier spokesman Kowalchuk told msnbc.com that heightened security concerns on the Sept. 11 anniversary could have played a part in the way Hebshi and the two others were treated once they were detained.
“The heightened security of the day and the fact that there had been at least one other similar event on Sunday could have been factors in the way authorities responded. It was not a factor in the way the Frontier crew responded,” he said. “They saw behavior that concerned them and acted appropriately. What happened after that was determined by the responding authorities. Our duty and that of our flight crews is to ensure the safety of our passengers and we would never interfere with the authorities as they work to do the same.”
Calls from msnbc.com to the FBI in Detroit were not returned.