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Bomb threat diverts plane to Salt Lake International Airport

SALT LAKE CITY — Passengers on a United Airlines flight forced to land in Salt Lake City Thursday described tense moments before the plane landed and during the time they sat, waiting on the tarmac.

The Boeing 757 en route from Denver to San Francisco made the emergency landing at Salt Lake City International Airport after a written bomb threat was discovered in the food preparation area at the front of the plane.

Passenger Bob Winski said United Flight 741 landed 12 minutes after the captain used the intercom to announce, "We have a credible bomb threat."

"You say a prayer right away," said Winski, a Civil Air Patrol pilot from Durango, Colo.

"We were getting down (to the ground) in a hurry," he said. "That was a descent."

Keith Rayle of Highland Park, Colo., said he and his fellow passengers tensely sat on the tarmac for 50 minutes before officials finally evacuated the plane.

"They were definitely not concerned with human life on that one," Rayle said. "Everyone was scared about staying on the plane."

He said some of the passengers discussed opening the emergency exits themselves to get out of the plane.

Winski confirmed that it took nearly an hour before passengers were able to leave the plane.

"It seemed like a long time," he said. "You think, 'Are you going to blow up before they get us off the plane?' "

Both he and his wife, however, said the flight crew was professional and kept passengers calm during the tense situation.

"It was surreal," said Mary Beth Winski.

Passenger Paul Phalen, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was not as worried.

"It really wasn't a big deal," he said as he picked up his bags.

Phalen said FBI agents questioned each passenger, asking if they had seen anyone slipping something onto a cart or if anyone on the plane had been acting suspiciously. He said he did not see anything unusual.

Rayle said he saw the threatening message, describing it as a "hand-scrawled note written on scrap of paper towel."

"It didn't look professional to me," he said.

Mary Beth Winski said another passenger, who had apparently seen the note, later told her that it was found taped to the front of a beverage cart. It was written in English and in a second language the other passenger did not recognize, she said.

United 741 originated out of Omaha, Neb., early Thursday, stopping in Denver. It left Denver shortly after 7 a.m., carrying 161 passengers and a crew of six bound for San Francisco. Salt Lake airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann said the threatening note was found by a flight attendant and taken to the plane's captain.

"It's possible (the note) could have been put there anywhere in the system," Gann said.

Once the note was discovered, the captain contacted air traffic control in Salt Lake and requested permission to land, Gann said. The plane landed without incident at 9:46 a.m. and taxied to a secure location on the northwest end of the airport, where it was met by local law enforcement and Transportation Safety Administration officials.

Passengers were unloaded 32 minutes later, according to Gann, and bused to the airport's international terminal to be interviewed.

Luggage was unloaded from the plane and laid out on the runway. The airport's bomb squad, supported by K-9 units, FBI agents and airport police, inspected the plane and passengers' baggage, Gann said.

No arrests had been made late Thursday and no explosives were found on the plane, authorities said.

Passengers were told they would continue their flight on the same airplane but with a new flight crew. They picked up their bags about 2:30 p.m. and their luggage was re-screened.

The FBI's Salt Lake City division is heading up the investigation, working in collaboration with airport police and other authorities, but provided no details of the event.

Dave Joly, spokesman for the FBI's Denver division, said agents there have been working with police at Denver International Airport on the investigation. But until the bureau can determine where the note came from, he said, the focus of the investigation remains on the plane itself.

Contributing: Emiley Morgan

e-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

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