Have you ever thwarted a terrorist plot?
Well, I have… maybe.
Flashback to 2015, the Denver Airport. I had just settled into my window seat, 7th row, right side of the plane. As a frequent flier and a tad-bit superstitious, I always upgraded with Southwest to board early and attempt to nab my lucky seat.
Back then, I avoided conversations with strangers. My idea of flying included a pair of dark sunglasses, headphones, and a small pillow to lean my head on the plane’s sidewall. On this trip, I was headed to Louisville, Kentucky, to conduct a softball camp. A nice, quiet woman who I guessed to be in her late 50’s chose the aisle seat, leaving an open middle seat between us.
Aside from 7 being a favorite number, picking the 7th row is also strategic for me - it’s not too close to the front, where a weary traveler might take a middle seat to be off the plane first – while also, it’s far enough back that those who value a non-middle seat, even if it means being in the back, will pass it by.
Now that you know how my mind works…
I watched as waves of people boarded and passed on the middle seat in row 7. By the time the waves dissipated to a trickle, the likelihood of having a little extra room increased. Once I saw the attendants doing final checks on the overhead bends and conducting headcounts, I felt relieved knowing my middle seat would remain open.
Then, just as I got comfortable, a peculiar-looking man rushed onto the plane ahead of the boarding door being closed.
I peeked beneath my sunglasses as I pretended to sleep and watched his shaky hands and wild eyes stop at row 7. He asked the nice lady on the aisle with the nod of his head, and she obliged, while I continued to fake sleep.
He smelled of stale cigarettes, and his stocky, muscular build took more of the seat than he deserved. I scanned the tattoos on his forearms, made visible by the rolled-up sleeves of his flannel shirt. I have friends from the Middle East and quickly recognized the markings on his arms as Arabic. I found the ink strange since everything else about him screamed thirty-something from the Midwest.
As the flight attendant began her departure spiel – you know the one given with a manufactured smile and seatbelt instructions that nobody pays attention to? – our middle seat friend began to shuffle through items in his backpack beneath his seat. He pulled from it a sketchpad, laid it on his lap and flipped through the pages.
He was a talented artist, but his work was dark and cryptic – demonic with religious undertones and overtures. After dozens of pages, he stopped on a page showing a sketch of a hand, drawn in a three-dimensional perspective, reaching off the page to the viewer.
As the plane taxied toward the runway, our friend popped a cap off a fat black sharpie and rapidly scribbled lines of text.
The first line caught my attention, and while I continued to pretend to be asleep, I stared at the words beneath my dark glasses.
“Today is the day I DIE. The day we ALL DIE.”
“Nobody on this plane realizes what’s about to happen to them.”
As I waited to see what else he was about the write, from her seat on the aisle, the nice, quiet lady’s voice quivered as she confronted him, “That’s kind of cryptic isn’t it?”
He responded by slamming his sketchbook shut and mumbled, “It’s nothing.”
I sat up in my seat and removed my sunglasses and said, “No, it’s something.”
He glanced at me and shoved his sketchbook into his backpack.
“You’re making me uncomfortable.” The lady on the aisle said, pointing to the sketchbook now in his backpack.
“It’s nothing,” he repeated nervously.
I said, “You’re making her uncomfortable. That concerns me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he shot back.
I snapped back, “You’re going to tell me why you wrote that.”
He folded his arms defiantly with his fists clenched as his pupils danced in his eyes.
The lady on the aisle began to cry with fear. I said to the man, “You can’t write things like that, don’t you watch the news?” Every night there were stories about Isis infiltrating the U.S. with plans to take down planes and commit terrorist acts against innocent Americans. The whole country felt on the edge.
The man in the middle seat grew tenser and smirked at me.
I pondered what to do. There was a good chance he was simply seeking attention – probably harmless. I heard the pilot announce, “Next for takeoff.” If I was going to act, it was now or never. I thought about my wife and kids. I thought about my responsibility to say something when you see something. I reached for the button to summon the flight attendant. I paused for a moment, second-guessing my action, and then pushed it.
The flight attendant had just strapped into the jumpseat. She craned her neck with a furrowed brow and shook her head at me. I pushed it again and motioned for her. She shook her head at me again and mouthed, “We’re getting ready for takeoff. No!”
I stood the best I could and said, “Get over here, now!”
Visibly annoyed, she unstrapped from her seat and jerked the phone to the cockpit against her ear. She stomped back to aisle 7 with her hands set on her hips and barked at me, “What’s your problem!”
I said, “He’s the problem,” and pointed to the man next to me as he looked forward with his arms set across his chest.
“What?” she said, obviously put off. “Fine, I’ll move you.”
I said, “No, I don’t want to move. Look at his sketchpad.”
She shook her head in disbelief and said, “What are you talking about.”
I nudged the guy next to me and demanded, “Get it out. Show her!”
He gave me the side-eye but otherwise didn’t move.
A male flight attendant joined the fray asked what was going on.
I repeated my demand to the guy in the middle seat. The male flight attendant
sympathetically urged him, “C’mon buddy just show us so we can get on with this flight.”
The man slowly reached beneath his seat and pulled his sketchbook and handed it over to the flight attendant, without making eye contact.
The flight attendant flipped through the pages, and with each turn, his eyes grew bigger.
I said, “Turn to the last one – the drawing of the hand. He wrote those words above it as we were taxiing.”
The flight attendant took only seconds to process it before he rushed to the front of the plane and slapped his hand on the cockpit door before picking up the phone and speaking with urgency.
The guy next to me turned and looked at me and said, “I’m an artist, it’s nothing.”
I said, “Shut up.”
The nice lady continued to cry on the aisle.
The man said, “You didn’t have to stop the plane.”
Again, I said, “Shut up.”
As the plane began to reverse, my body grew tense. I anticipated the man next to me might want to fight like a cornered beast.
He said, “Why are we backing up.”
I said, “You, dumbass.”
The man began to shake and the veins bulged on his arms with tight fists.
He said, “You’ll regret this.”
Again, I said, “Shut up.”
As we approached the jet bridge, I could see from my window a swarm of dark sedans and men with badges on their belts.
A plain-clothes officer boarded the plane with a gun gripped in his hand and stopped at aisle 7. He asked me, “Is this our guy?” I nodded. The officer gripped the man by the wrist and led him across the nice lady on the aisle and quickly escorted the man from the plane and into the back of a black sedan.
The nice, quiet woman wept in her hands and I tried comforting her with reassuring words.
The officer came back for the man’s backpack and asked me if anything else had been brought by the man onto the plane. After a quick search, he seemed satisfied and left.
For the next hour or so, we watched as authorities ripped passenger luggage from the belly of the plane, checking each bag before placing it all back beneath us. During that time, a flood of smiling passengers approached aisle 7 to shake my hand and thank me for my actions.
The flight attendant with the stabbing eyes apologized and said the pilot would like to speak with me to thank me for being brave. He offered me his appreciation and drinks for the duration of the flight.
“I said, it wasn’t bravery that led me to push the button – it was fear.”
For the next few days, I watched the news (both National and the local Denver news) to see what happened to the man who chose the middle seat in aisle 7. But nothing was mentioned anywhere.
Three years later I shared my account to a friend who worked with Homeland Security. I said, “I guess I overreacted by pushing the button – never saw it on the news – and I kind of feel foolish looking back.”
My friend’s face turned serious. He said, “Actually, it has been our policy to suppress these types of stories. The fact that it never made the news increases the chances the man you described was Isis or an Isis sympathizer. He easily could have had plans to take down that flight – or he could’ve been doing a test run. Either way, what you did was admirable, and you may have stopped a terrorist attack.”
And that, my friends, is when I got scared.
Jerrad Hardin is an author and softball coach, who runs a series of five-star softball camps for prep athletes each June and July. To find one near you, please click the image below.