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Passenger's Struggle at Jetliner's Cockpit Door Revives Safety Questions

by Kevin Gray, Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - A United Airlines co-pilot overpowered a man who tried to force his way into the cockpit by striking him over the head with a hatchet midway through a flight from Miami on Thursday.

Other crew and several passengers then began wrestling with Pablo Moreira, 28, subduing him after a chaotic, 10-minute struggle.

Moreira, a banker from Uruguay, was restrained for the remainder of the flight, the airline and the FBI said. A flight attendant also received minor injuries in the struggle.

Moreira, who was lucid and in stable condition, was arrested when the jetliner landed safely in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires as scheduled at 10:30 a.m. local time, said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman in Miami. He was provided medical treatment.

It was not clear what prompted the man to try to enter the cockpit. Orihuela said he was not armed and did not appear drunk.

Argentine authorities said they were investigating whether Moreira was under the influence of drugs or mentally distraught. "He doesn't remember what happened," said Jorge Reta, an Argentine Air Force spokesman.

"No information at this time indicates it's a terrorist incident," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for President George W. Bush's Homeland Security Council. "But, of course, the FBI is investigating."

The incident raised new questions about access to airplane cockpits in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. United Airlines and American Airlines have both reinforced their cockpit doors with metal bars, but some passenger advocacy groups insisted Thursday that further steps are needed.

United spokeswoman Chris Nardella said Moreira kicked in a small breakaway panel across the bottom half of the door and then stuck his head inside the cockpit before a pilot grabbed an ax in the cockpit and clubbed him. The axes are kept in the cockpit for emergencies.

Authorities said Moreira began kicking the cockpit door about five hours after the midnight flight left Miami, carrying 157 people. Several passengers said he was shouting that he wanted to talk to the pilot as he rushed to the front of the plane.

Passengers recalled the 10-minute struggle as chaotic, with punches flying.

"You could look up from the aisle and see the whole cabin crew had rushed to the scene and a big army of people trying to help out," said Brian Hopman, an Associated Press sales associate aboard the flight.

"There was a huge panic," said Hopman, who was seated about halfway back in the plane.

Another traveler, Lucia Tilia, said that once Moreira was restrained, pilots used their belts to tie him down, later allowing him medical attention. "The pilots had to hit him to tie him down," she said.

United Chairman and CEO Jack Creighton said in a statement the reinforced door helped prevent Moreira from entering the cockpit.

But David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger group, said Thursday's incident showed further security steps are needed beyond the single bar now being used by some airlines to strengthen cockpit doors.

"There are vulnerabilities in the system put in place involving a single bar across the door," he said. "By having a bar just in the middle of the door it enables a terrorist to kick in the bottom and maybe crawl into the cockpit or underneath the bar."

"Maybe they could put in additional bars," he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation gave all airlines until early January to strengthen cockpit doors. Many have done so, and the industry has said it envisions newer and far stronger doors, although they are not yet available.

In Washington, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the suspect would likely be extradited to the United States when he leaves the hospital.

FBI officials said they expected Moreira to be brought back to the United States, where he would be charged with interfering with a flight crew.

Law enforcement sources say there remains no evidence that Moreira has any ties to known terrorist organizations.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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