DETROIT - An U.S. woman who was one of three people taken off an airplane at Detroit's airport and questioned on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks says she was shocked when armed officers stopped at her row and ordered her off.
Shoshana Hebshi, 35, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday that she believes she was targeted because of her Middle Eastern appearance. Hebshi, who describes herself as half-Arabic, half-Jewish with a dark complexion, said she endured nearly four hours in police custody that included being forced off an airplane in handcuffs, strip-searched and interrogated.
Authorities say fighter jets escorted the Denver-to-Detroit Frontier Airlines flight after its crew reported that two people were spending a long time in a bathroom - the two men sitting next to Hebshi in the 12th row.
The FBI has said the three didn't know each other. One man felt ill and got up to use the restroom and another man in the same row also left his seat to go to the bathroom. The FBI said they never were inside together.
Hebshi told the AP she didn't notice how many times the men went to the bathroom. “I wasn't keeping track,” she said.
“I really wasn't paying attention,” said Hebshi, a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home mother of twin six-year-old boys. “I was minding my own business - sleeping, reading, playing on my phone.”
Hebshi has written extensively on her blog about the incident, saying she felt “violated, humiliated and sure that I was being taken from the plane simply because of my appearance.”
She said by email Wednesday morning that she planned to speak with representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan later in the day. She has made no firm decisions about taking legal action, but said “it seems there are some civil rights violations to consider here.”
After the plane landed, she wrote several posts on Twitter about what was going on as those aboard waited while police descended. “A little concerned about this situation. Plane moved away from terminal surrounded by cops. Crew is mum. Passengers can't get up,” she wrote at one point.
Later she wrote, “I see stairs coming our way...yay!” Her last post said, “Majorly armed cops coming aboard.”
It's then than she says the officers ordered her and the men, whom she described as Indian, to get up.
She said she was patted down and taken by car to a holding cell. A uniformed female officer eventually came in and told Hebshi to take off her clothes.
After the strip search, another officer who identified herself as a Homeland Security agent led Hebshi to another room, Hebshi said. There, a man who identified himself as an FBI agent asked her a series of questions while a female agent took notes, Hebshi said.
Hebshi said that when she asked what was going on, the male agent told her someone on the plane reported that she and the men on her row were “conducting suspicious activity.”
FBI spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said the three passengers were questioned but not arrested before federal authorities determined there was no reason to suspect or hold them. She also said FBI agents who questioned the passengers were not involved in any strip searches.
“We received a report of suspicious activity on that particular plane,” Berchtold said. “We did not arrest ... these passengers. ... We didn't direct anybody to arrest them.”
Airport police are under the supervision of the Wayne County Airport Authority, which operates Detroit Metropolitan Airport. In an email to the AP, agency spokesman Scott Wintner said airport police “responded appropriately by following protocol and treating everyone involved with respect and dignity. ”
Wintner said the decision on how to respond was a call made by the Airport Authority's CEO, who he said is Arab-American.
Hebshi said that finally, after being fingerprinted and allowed to call her husband, she was told she and the men were being released and that nothing suspicious was found on the plane. She said an official apologized and thanked her for understanding and co-operating.
Hebshi said she received another call of apology from an FBI agent Monday, before she wrote her blog post.
“I can understand they were just doing their job,” she told the AP. “My beef is with these laws and regulations that are so hypersensitive. ... Even if you're an innocent bystander, you have no rights.”
AP left email and phone messages seeking comment Tuesday night with Frontier Airlines.
The flight was one of two for which fighter jets were scrambled Sunday after crews reported suspicious activity on Sunday, officials said. In both cases, it involved bathroom use. In neither case did authorities find anything to substantiate the suspicions.
On Tuesday, a US Airways flight from New York to Phoenix was diverted to St. Louis after crew became concerned about the activities of three male passengers, all three of whom were Israeli citizens. Investigators determined there was no terrorism involved.