Mystery last night continued to surround the identity of the firebug or firebugs aboard an Etihad B777 flight from Melbourne, after their actions turned the flight into a nightmare for passengers, including many Australians, earlier this week.
Whether the multiple fires constituted terrorism, the work of a maniac arsonist or a deranged prankster remains unknown.
Terrorism is an increasingly likely possibility, with ABC News last night quoting a passenger called Dale Henderson who was aboard the aircraft and said he had spoken with cabin crew. He said he had learned that “paper had been shoved in the waste basket, along with sick bags which are coated with a wax lining. Also a little bit of alcohol was apparently used to get the fire going”.
Henderson said he had no doubt that someone was trying “to bring the plane down and everybody on board”. Cabin crew had told him that if they hadn’t reached the second fire in the back of the plane until 90 seconds later “we would have been history, they reckon”.
Reports last night said 12 passengers had been detained by Abu Dhabi security authorities over the blazes. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted a spokesman for Etihad Airways saying no arrests had been made, but the airline was co-operating fully with the investigation.
The incidents began when Melbourne to Abu Dhabi flight EY 461 made an emergency landing in Jakarta late Monday after smoke was detected in the cabin. Security checks were carried out there and luggage was searched.
The problem was that the mystery firebug, or firebugs, aboard kept lighting fires in the toilets.
A passenger told Melbourne’s Herald Sun that the flight had been back in the air from Jakarta only an hour or so when smoke again filled the cabin. This terrified the passengers, who were hoping the problem had been solved in Jakarta.
One passenger on the flight, Sarah Jeffery, told the Sydney Morning Herald she was “dumbfounded by the risk Etihad took with its passengers’ lives by continuing the flight”.
Fires broke out at least three times on the flight – some reports say four – until the plane eventually landed safely in Abu Dhabi.
An Instagram post by Caroline Martens, who Fairfax newspapers said was a Norwegian professional golfer, read: “Try having someone set the plane on fire, in two different places, having to emergency land in Jakarta, get back on after hours of investigations, for the IDIOT to set three more fires in three more toilets while midair and nowhere to land.”
The Australian quoted a passenger on the flight, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the firebug first struck about three to four hours into the flight. The fires were in different toilets.
The witness said the second fire, which was in the rear toilet, produced visible flames and filled the cabin with smoke. Cabin crew used two extinguishers to put out the blaze.
It was then the plane made the emergency diversion to Jakarta.
An Etihad statement said: “When smoke was detected in two of the toilets on flight EY 461 from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi on 17 February, the captain decided to divert the aircraft as a precautionary measure and land in Jakarta in order to allow the authorities to assist him to conduct a security assessment of the situation. The flight landed normally.”
“The flight resumed after a security search of the aircraft, passengers and their carry-on luggage.
“A further toilet smoke alarm occurred two hours before arrival in Abu Dhabi as the cabin crew were preparing the meal service. The smoke was detected and dealt with immediately by the crew.
“The captain decided to position crew members at each of the toilets which meant that normal cabin service was not possible. The food and beverage service was discontinued and the crew continued to monitor and secure toilet access for the remainder of the flight,” the statement said.
Passengers said they were asked to remain in their seats and served just a muffin and one drink over a period of about 12 hours.
Detectives were waiting at Abu Dhabi Airport to thoroughly check and scrutinise disembarking passengers, taking aside anyone who seemed suspect or able to provide information.
A dozen passengers are, or were “helping police with their inquiries” according to reports, but nothing is known of who they are.
So not a happy flight, all in all – though at least one passenger praised Etihad’s dealing with the situation, saying it was professional. That passenger said food was available from the galley if anyone wanted it as the cabin crew were too busy dealing with the situation to distribute meals.
Your can’t guard a toilet and conduct meal service at the same time.
Written by : Peter Needham