Gene Parente wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t been there Thursday.
Parente said the Korean Air flight attendants were pretty small and so too were the two reserve pilots who jumped in to help subdue a passenger who began, 45 minutes from Seattle, banging on the cockpit door and trying to wrench it open.
The flight attendants couldn’t stop the passenger and turned to the 6-foot Parente, sitting near them in business class, for help.
Parente said after the passenger bolted around the plane, he was shot with Tasers by the flight attendants and wrangled to the ground WWF-style by Parente and the two reserve pilots. The passenger was bound with giant zip ties and sat upon for the remainder of the flight.
FBI agents took him into custody at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
On Friday, Gyeong Jei Lee, a Korean native who now lives in Colorado, was charged with interference with a flight crew and assault on an aircraft in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
According to the complaint, the flight from Seoul was about an hour from Seattle when Lee donned a plastic bag with breathing holes and threatened the crew with a sharp hairpin.
Screaming in both English and Korean, he demanded to speak to the captain, claimed he had a bomb and said he wanted the plane diverted to Vancouver, B.C., because he’d never been there before, the court document alleges.
Parente said he was waking groggily at the end of the long flight when the commotion started.
“Suddenly this flight attendant comes running up to me, ‘Sir, I need your help, please,’ ” said Parente, of San Diego. “I run up and he’s kicking and trying to open the cockpit door. It’s your worst post-9/11 nightmare. “
Parente said the other man was about his own size and when the two of them started punching each other in the space of a business-class seat, “it was total madness.”
He said the other passengers did not get out of their seats, and it surprised him to find he was the “first line of defense.”
“I’m not saying you need to have armed guards on planes, but at the same time this was a very dangerous situation that could have been worse,” he said.
Korean Air said in an email that it routinely trains crew members how to subdue unruly passengers, including with a Taser. Korean Air also said that it doesn’t “hire people by their size and we trust all our crews are capable enough to conduct safety actions.”
“Unruly passengers are a broader issue that should be dealt with (by) airport and law enforcement authorities. We will continue to discuss with relevant stakeholders to eliminate such cases.”