Explosives Found in Packages Bound for US Lead to Fighter Jet Escort for Flight to JFK
By Ben Fractenberg, Della Hasselle and Michael Ventura
MANHATTAN — Two packages containing explosives found in the United Kingdom and Dubai set off a worldwide terror alert Friday and led to a military escort for a United Arab Emirates passenger plane bound for John F. Kennedy Airport.
Both packages originated in Yemen and were bound for Jewish religious facilities in Chicago, federal officials said Friday afternoon. Searches for other suspicious packages in cargo planes were conducted at airports in Newark and Philadelphia.
A UPS truck at MetroTech, Brooklyn, was also searched, causing the Manhattan Bridge and part of Flatbush Avenue to be shut down. Two packages - envelopes from Yemen - were found and cleared as safe by authorities.
Concerns about cargo from Yemen that was believed to be on the Emirates Flight 201 led to the decision by Canadian and US military forces to send jets to escort the plane, James Brennan, a presidential aide for homeland security and counter-terrorism, said at a press conference.
"The only thing the pilot said was there was heightened security," Louis Kelley, 59, from Connecticut, who was a passenger on Flight 201, told DNAinfo. "I travel 110 days a year. My wife told me we're going to have a long chat when I get home."
He said after the plane landed a bus came and brought them to the terminal.
Kelley said passengers didn't realize what was going on with their plane until they watched CNN while getting their passports checked.
"No one on the plane knew there was any bomb threat," said passenger Braham Aggarwal, 75, of Florida. "I just heard now."
After he found out, though, Aggarwal said, "you feel scared." He said officials searched passengers' carry-on luggage as they made their way through customs.
The plane was not carrying any suspicious materials and has been cleared, a security official said.
The packages found in the UK and Dubai constituted "a credible terrorist threat against our country," President Barack Obama said during an afternoon press conference. "We are going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect our citizens from this kind of attack."
Preliminary tests showed the packages found in the United Kingdom and in Dubai contained PETN, the chemical used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day underwear bomber who was trained in Yemen.
The president said he was told about the threat late Thursday evening.
The White House thanked Saudi authorities for providing intelligence including tracking numbers for the packages.
Brennan, the homeland security aide, said, "With an abundance of caution, our air force and the Canadian air force, will scramble some jets to make sure everything is OK."
The explosives found in the UK and Dubai packages were "designed to carry out some type of attack," Brennan said. "Clearly, from initial observations, the materials that were found, the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm."
That discovery led authorities to increase scrutiny of other packages that originated in Yemen, which is known as a haven for Al Qaeda.
The Emirates flight was initially followed by Canadian fighters while the plane was in their airspace, according to news reports, and was then picked up by U.S. military jets.
It was not clear what the threat aboard the Emirates flight might be.
The worldwide bomb scare started Friday morning when authorities found a suspicious package at a UPS facility in the East Midlands, in the UK, the New York Times reported. The package originated in Yemen and was bound for Chicago, and was found to contain a computer toner cartridge, wires and white powder.
Another suspicious device, which also originated in Yemen, was found in a FedEx facility in Dubai and did contain explosives, the Associated Press reported. The Yemen connection set off a worldwide search for other suspicious packages that may have originated there.
The Emirates plane landed at JFK at roughly 3:35 p.m. It was isolated at the airport to be searched.
Anthony Cardinale, of Brooklyn, was in the arrivals section at JFK, waiting for his wife, who was on the flight.
"You just want to get her in your arms so you lay your worries to rest," he said, ready to greet her with flowers and a big hug.