July 13, 2012 -- Thursday night's terror scare on a Delta Airlines flight from New York to Madrid began when an air marshal became suspicious of a passenger of Pakistani descent who had just left a lavatory, and ended with a heavily armed SWAT team storming the plane, only to find no terrorist and no bomb.
It was another false alarm in the air that had some in law enforcement questioning the judgment of federal air marshals. And over the new two weeks, prior to and during the London Olympics, there will be teams of marshals on virtually every U.S. carrier flight into or out of the major cities of Europe and the Middle East.
"I think reasonableness did not prevail on this flight," said ABC News consultant Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent, "and crying wolf too many times will then not help you when you have a real crisis."
Delta Flight 126, which left JFK airport at 8 p.m., was about 45 minutes into its trip when a federal air marshal saw a Pakistani-American man exit a lavatory. Inside the lavatory, the air marshal found two short pieces of wire with their ends tripped off, covered by a piece of dark straw. The marshal concluded, wrongly, that that they could be components for a bomb.
At the same time, a female passenger from Argentina began to have breathing difficulties, and other air marshals thought, again wrongly, that she could be a decoy, meant to distract the crew while someone else assembled a bomb.
The plane turned back toward JFK, first telling passengers there were mechanical difficulties but then admitting there was a "security" issue. After an emergency landing, the Delta jet was directed toward an isolated area. Passengers looked out their windows and saw firetrucks, security trucks and personnel in HAZMAT suits.
The pilot told air traffic control, "There may be actually a real team on board and we'd like to get security on the airplane as soon as we can."
He also explained how the Argentine woman could be a member of the "terror team." "She's the one that is supposed to be the decoy that keeps looking at the gentleman that was playing the possible explosive device in the lavatory."
The SWAT team stormed the plane, finding nothing. The 277 passengers who had been evacuated from the aircraft were finally allowed to proceed to Madrid just before 4 a.m., nearly 8 hours behind schedule.
Said passenger Dayna Kurtz, who was heading to Spain to perform with her band, "The scariest thing was landing and seeing all of the emergency people. Our first thought was, 'Wow, this could be a really big deal.' " She said the greatest hardship turned out to be waiting "about four hours" for access to a restroom.
Though in the end there was no real threat, federal air marshals are trained to react precisely as they did Thursday night.
They are trained to look for teams of terrorists and decoys, and told that terrorists may sneak bomb component parts on board to be assembled in washrooms.
They are also trained to shoot to kill, in the head, to prevent someone from detonating a bomb.
In a statement, Delta said the flight had been returned to JFK "due to the discovery of a suspicious item on board. As a precautionary measure, the plane taxied to a remote location where passengers were escorted off the plane. The aircraft was searched with negative results."