May 11, 2011
By Bill Silverfarb Daily Journal staff
Retired San Mateo police officer Larry Wright helped subdue a Yemeni man on a San Francisco-bound flight from Chicago who was trying to access the plane’s cockpit.
Larry Wright was busy watching television on his iPhone Sunday night as a commotion erupted on the San Francisco-bound American Airlines flight from Chicago he was traveling on.
He heard a scream from behind, although faint through the earphones he was wearing, when a moment later a man brushed by him in a rush toward the front of the plane.
Wright watched the man’s speed toward the cockpit turn to a trot, then a run when he heard the man scream “Allahu Akbar.”
Immediately, the former San Mateo police officer’s instincts kicked into gear.
The phrase Allahu Akbar or “God is great” is the same phrase an al-Qaida terrorist who participated in the hijacking of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, was heard saying on a voice recorder as the plane plummeted to a field in Pennsylvania.
Wright quickly unbuckled his seat belt after he heard the phrase and headed toward the man as it quickly became clear the agitated passenger was not headed toward the bathroom but rather the plane’s cockpit.
Some passengers and flight attendants briefly struggled with the irate man before Wright reached him and subdued him.
Yesterday, a federal prosecutor called the passenger, 28-year-old Rageh al-Murisi of Yemen, a “significant threat.”
Al-Murisi, who has family in Vallejo, is currently being held in custody without bail while awaiting trial.
Wright, who retired from the SMPD in 2007, recounted Sunday night’s events yesterday at San Francisco International Airport.
Al-Murisi was being taken to the ground by four or five others on the plane when Wright finally took a hold of him.
While Wright’s adrenaline was pumping, so too was al-Murisi’s as the former officer’s hands slipped off the struggling passenger.
“His skin was clammy, almost moist,” Wright said yesterday.
Wright wrapped the man up again in a “control hold” while others tried to cuff him. Wright too then attempted to put some “flex cuffs” on al-Murisi without success. He tried again, this time successful, as he told others to take the man’s shoes and socks off.
Wright then took his belt off and strapped al-Murisi’s wrists to his ankles. He was under control but Wright’s attention immediately went to the “what-ifs.”
Wright asked himself, was the man carrying a contaminant or improvised explosive device? Was there an accomplice?
Not wanting to risk the safety of other passengers, Wright determined the man should not be transported to the back of the plane as first suggested by one of the flight attendants.
Instead, Wright laid the man face down on the floor near the front of the plane and sat on him for about 20 minutes until the plane and all of its passengers landed safely in San Francisco.
“I knew what could have happened and it didn’t happen,” Wright said yesterday. “He had a plan. I thought he was trying to crash the plane.”
Al-Murisi never said a word directly to Wright.
“He just kept saying Allahu Akbar over and over again, maybe 30 times,” Wright said.
The phrase has become synonymous with the events of Sept. 11 and Wright knew through his training when al-Murisi first yelled the phrase on the plane that nothing good could come from it.
Nearly 10 years ago, on the day of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Wright was at a High-tech Crime Investigation Association meeting in Long Beach when the Twin Towers fell.
He saved the green T-shirt from that weekend’s event as a reminder and brought it to the airport yesterday.
“I swore to myself after that day that I would never be a victim,” Wright, 54, said while holding up the T-shirt.
He does not consider himself to be a hero, however.
In fact, he was reluctant to come forward and tell his story because he prefers to live a private life.
“I’m no hero. Under the circumstances, I did what I think everyone should do,” he said.
Wright worked with the San Mateo Police Department from 1981 until his retirement in 2007.
He quoted a phrase from 18th century Irish statesman Edmund Burke at the airport yesterday.
“Evil prevails when good men do nothing.”
Al-Murisi had no luggage and was carrying two checks totaling $13,000 on the flight. Al-Murisi, who holds a Yemeni passport, had identification showing addresses in New York City and Vallejo, federal prosecutors said yesterday.
A detention hearing for al-Murisi is scheduled for Friday, federal prosecutors said. The crime of interfering with flight crew members and attendants carries a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison upon conviction.
“We don’t need to be flustered by this, but we must be prepared,” Wright said yesterday.
Bay City News Service contributed to this report.