MIAMI – An agitated passenger who claimed to have a bomb in his backpack was shot and killed by a federal air marshal Wednesday after he bolted frantically from a jetliner that was boarding for takeoff, officials said. No bomb was found.
It was the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that an air marshal had shot at anyone, Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Doyle said. Another federal official said there was no apparent link to terrorism.
According to a witness, the passenger ran down the aisle of the Boeing 757, flailing his arms, while his wife tried to explain that he was mentally ill and had not taken his medication.
The passenger, identified as Rigoberto Alpizar, indicated there was a bomb in his bag and was confronted by air marshals but ran off the aircraft, Doyle said. The marshals went after him and ordered him to get down on the ground, but he did not comply and was shot when he apparently reached into the bag, Doyle said.
Alpizar, a 44-year-old U.S. citizen, was gunned down on a jetway outside the American Airlines plane, which was parked at a gate at Miami International Airport. Alpizar had arrived earlier in the day from Quito, Ecuador, and Flight 924 was going to Orlando, near his home in Maitland.
Relatives said Alpizar and his wife had been on a working vacation in Peru. A neighbor who said he had been asked to watch the couple’s home described the vacation as a missionary trip.
The shooting occurred shortly after 2 p.m. as Flight 924 was about to take off for Orlando with the man and 119 other passengers and crew, American spokesman Tim Wagner said.
After the shooting, investigators spread passengers’ bags on the tarmac and let dogs sniff them for explosives, and bomb squad members blew up at least two bags.
No bomb was found, said James E. Bauer, agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshals field office in Miami. He said there was no reason to believe there was any connection to terrorists.
The concourse where the shooting took place was shut down for a half-hour, but the rest of the airport continued operating, officials said.
Federal officials declined to say how many times Alpizar was shot, or reveal how many air marshals were on the plane.
There were only 33 air marshals at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration hired thousands more afterward, but the exact number is classified.
Marshals fly undercover, and which planes they’re on is a closely guarded secret. Until Wednesday, no marshal had fired a weapon, though they had been involved in scores of incidents.