PHILADELPHIA — A man flying home to Texas to celebrate his 29th birthday with family and friends on Thursday instead spent the day at the center of a midair explosives scare that forced the plane's return to Philadelphia and led law enforcement officers to escort him away at gunpoint.
The scare turned out to be a hoax, authorities said after searching the Dallas-bound US Airways jet and questioning the passenger. The man did nothing wrong and was the victim of "a pretty nasty trick," Philadelphia police Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan said.
Officials would not name the man, but Philadelphia resident Christopher Shell identified himself in a phone call with The Associated Press as the man removed from the plane.
Shell declined to comment further, but his Facebook page is filled with references to the episode and photos of him aboard the aircraft before departure.
"We just spent a half-hour in the air to be notified that the plane, 'has technical difficulties' and had to fly back! Flight 1267 CANCELED," Shell later wrote, apparently unaware he was the reason for the return.
Police at Philadelphia International Airport received a call around 7:30 a.m. that named a passenger who was on his way to Texas and said he was carrying a dangerous substance, Sullivan said.
The name matched a passenger on Flight 1267 to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, prompting officials to turn the aircraft around after it had flown a third of the way across Pennsylvania. Passengers said they were told the plane was having electrical problems.
After landing, the airplane taxied to a remote section of the airport, where law enforcement vehicles surrounded it.
Passenger Steve McNeal, of Milton, in central Pennsylvania, said he was sitting next to Shell when five heavily armed officials boarded the plane.
"They turned the gun and pointed it at the guy sitting right next to me. I was shocked," McNeal said after the flight eventually made its way to Dallas. "I had been talking to him on the way out for the first 15 minutes of the flight. Nothing seemed abnormal."
Another passenger, Lisa Flanagan, from Philadelphia, said it looked as though Shell "was in shock. He didn't know what was going on."
Authorities escorted Shell from the airplane and put him in the back of a police car, Sullivan said.
"He was obviously very alarmed, as I would be if heavily armed police officers entered a plane to take me off," Sullivan said. "And he was certainly stunned. And that's why this is no joke. This is no laughing matter."
Bomb technicians and specially trained dogs searched the plane but found nothing illegal or hazardous, said Sullivan, who stressed that the passenger is not a suspect.
Police are treating the hoax seriously, he said, because it resulted in a heavy police response and a significant hassle for all those on the plane, which had 69 passengers and five crew members.
"It's just an incredibly foolish and irresponsible thing to do and, bottom line, it's criminal," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the investigation into the call had been turned over to the FBI. Earlier, an FBI spokesman said the flight was diverted because of a call reporting liquid explosives were on board.
A pre-departure Facebook post from Shell described how someone he knew at the airport allowed him to go "through security with a breeze." Sullivan said social media posts would be part of the investigation.
Shell's hometown is Fort Worth, and he works in Philadelphia for 2020 Companies, a sales and marketing firm, according to his Facebook page. Various posts and public records indicate he turned 29 on Thursday and planned to spend the weekend in Texas.
FBI special agent Richard Quinn said it was too early to speculate about what sort of charges could be filed against the caller but they could be severe.
McNeal, who was sitting next to Shell, said he hopes whoever made the call "pays for it."
"Because in this day and age," he said, "it's not funny."
Associated Press videographer John Mone in Dallas and writers Maryclaire Dale and Randy Pennell in Philadelphia contributed to this report.