By Matthew Long
DETROIT (UTC/The Loop) — An Ohio woman said Tuesday that she endured nearly four hours in police custody that included being forced off an airplane in handcuffs, strip-searched and interrogated at Detroit’s airport on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks — all, she believes, because of her Middle Eastern appearance.
Shoshana Hebshi, 35, told The Associated Press she was one of three people removed from a Denver-to-Detroit Frontier Airlines flight after landing Sunday afternoon. Authorities say fighter jets escorted the plane 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.
Hebshi said 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 who lives in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. “I was minding my own business — sleeping, reading, playing on my phone.”
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 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.”
Hebshi, who describes herself as half-Arabic, half-Jewish with a dark complexion, told the AP after they landed, she noticed police first surrounding, then storming the plane. She said she was surprised when they stopped at her row and ordered her and the men to get up.
Her Twitter posts from Sunday bear that out. At one point, she wrote: “A little concerned about this situation. Plane moved away from terminal surrounded by cops. Crew is mum. Passengers can’t get up.”
Later she wrote, “I see stairs coming our way…yay!” Her last post said, “Majorly armed cops coming aboard.”
It’s then that 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 the FBI 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 cooperating.
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.
The flight was one of two for which fighter jets were scrambled Sunday after crews reported suspicious activity on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, officials said. In both cases, it involved bathroom use. In neither case did authorities find anything to substantiate the suspicions.
On American Airlines flight 34 from Los Angeles, three passengers who made repeated trips to the bathroom were cleared after the plane safely landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport.
Also Sunday, a GoJet Airlines flight bound for Washington was still on the runway in St. Louis when the pilot returned the aircraft to the gate and requested all passengers be re-screened after crew found paper towels stuffed in a toilet, according to a United Airlines spokesman. GoJet is a regional carrier for United.
Associated Press reporter David N. Goodman in Detroit contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.