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 about to take off, officials said. No bomb was found.
The man, identified as Rigoberto Alpizar, a 44-year-old U.S. citizen, was gunned down on a jetway just before the American Airlines plane was about to leave for Orlando, near his home in Maitland.
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.
According to a witness, the man frantically 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 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.
The plane, Flight 924, had arrived in Miami from Medellin, Colombia, just after noon, and the shooting occurred shortly after 2 p.m. as the plane was about to take off for Orlando with the man and 119 other passengers and crew, American spokesman Tim Wagner said.
Alpizar had arrived in Miami earlier in the day from Ecuador, authorities 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.
Mary Gardner, a passenger aboard the Orlando-bound flight, told WTVJ-TV in Miami that the man ran down the aisle from the rear of the plane.
"He was frantic, his arms flailing in the air," she said.
She said a woman followed, shouting, "My husband! My husband!"
Gardner said she heard the woman say her husband was bipolar — a mental illness also known as manic-depression — and had not had his medication.
Gardner said four to five shots were fired. She could not see the shooting.
After the shooting, police boarded the plane and told the passengers to put their hands on their heads, Gardner said.
"It was quite scary," she told the TV station via a cell phone. "They wouldn't let you move. They wouldn't let you get anything out of your bag."
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.