When Ryan Oelrich was awakened on the red-eye home from Alaska by a loud hissing noise, he wondered if the plane was going down.
He says he wasn’t scared, exactly. But he wondered if he might have time to quickly hop online and shoot a note of farewell to his friends and family.
“Hopefully I’m still connected and I can send out a message to my loved ones – ‘Hey, I love you all,’ ” Oelrich said.
Luckily, it didn’t come to that. It’s not clear what caused the noise Oelrich heard, but he quickly realized that something different was happening: A man was attempting to open the emergency door in the plane’s cabin, but he was quickly swarmed by a few fellow passengers, who detained him safely until landing. The scuffle made national news, and the man, Alexander Michael Herrera, 23, faces a charge of interfering with a flight crew.
The incident occurred early Monday morning on Alaska Airlines Flight No. 132 from Anchorage to Portland, and Herrera was arrested by the FBI when the plane landed at about 5:30 a.m. The flight had 137 passengers aboard – including Spokane’s Oelrich, who is the executive director of Ambassadors Scholarship Programs and who has become well-known for the large balloon sculptures he produces for community events, including First Night Spokane.
Oelrich was in Anchorage making a giant bouquet of wildflowers out of balloons for the Festival of Flowers in the Alaskan city. He was also visiting a girl who was a recipient of an Ambassadors scholarship; she taught Oelrich how to milk a goat and make goat soap, he said.
On the flight home, Oelrich was seated at a window a few rows ahead of the exit door. After he was awakened by the sounds of the scuffle and people screaming, he turned and saw a very tall, heavy-set man trying “very intently” to open the exit door.
Oelrich said he considered unbuckling his seat belt and trying to make it back there, but other passengers who were closer to the man quickly subdued him.
Henry Pignataro was sitting nearby with his 10-year-old son. He told KATU-TV in Portland that he placed Herrera in a chokehold and forced him to the ground. Other passengers joined in and held the man down while trying to figure out how to bind him until the plane landed. Oelrich said Herrera fought back a little at first but then stopped. He said he didn’t hear him say anything.
Pignataro told KATU that Herrera asked him why he was hurting him. “I said you’re hurting my 10-year-old son. He’s on the plane,” Pignataro said.
Flight attendants began searching for something to bind the man’s arms and legs – scouring through the overhead bins and other compartments without much success, Oelrich said. At one point, flight attendants found several shoelaces to use. Meanwhile, a passenger who had a seat belt extension offered that, he said.
“She undid her belt and yelled, ‘Baby girl, I have something for you,’ ” Oelrich said. “ ‘Tie him up with this.’ ”
Oelrich said he’s worked with mentally ill people and that it was obvious the man had some “issues.” He said he never feared there was more to it – never thought it was a terrorist-style event – and that people sitting around the man said later that he was exhibiting unusual behavior.
“People sitting around him were saying they knew something was up with him, saying he’d been asking bizarre questions and talking to himself,” Oelrich said.
In the end, Oelrich said, he was impressed by his fellow passengers – they acted quickly and smartly and didn’t get aggressive or angry.
“In the heat of the moment, multiple people jumped in to do their part and to help,” he said. “I just applaud those people who were around him.”
Not everyone was so helpful. Two passengers leapt to their feet as soon as the scuffle began and started taking pictures or videos with their cellphones, Oelrich said. Even after the flight attendants asked them to stop and clear out of the way, they kept at it – trying to capture their own YouTube moment.
The plane landed, Herrera was arrested and Oelrich had a little time before he caught his connection back to Spokane. Naturally, he used that time to Google a question that had gained a sudden urgency for him: “I always wondered, how do the emergency doors work? Can you open them?”
He said his initial searches provided no clear answer – but Alaska Airlines said the door on the plane has a lock that prevents it from being opened midflight. In addition, cabin pressure effectively makes it impossible to open an emergency door midflight, according to several sources.
Oelrich wanted a little peace of mind anyway.
“I specifically requested, ‘Please put me in the emergency exit row seat,’ ” he said.