In Search of Eyewitnesses for CZ6901 Incident

(Southern Weekend)  Searching for Eyewitnesses for CZ6901 Incident.  By Ding Bu (丁补).  March 11, 2008.

[in translation]

Once again, this was an extremely urgent situation.  Late at night on March 10, I received a telephone call assigning me to write the story of the "attempted hijack of China Southern Airlines flight CZ6901 on March 7."  "This story must be included in this issue!"  said the voice on the telephone.  Oh my God!  The cutoff would be Wednesday morning.  I knew nothing about this incident, and I had only 24 hours left.  There were more than 200 passengers on that airplane and they are somewhere out there amongst the hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens.  Our goal was to find these eyewitnesses in order to report what happened.  This was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Recently, I seemed to be involved with the subject of airplane hijacking.  I had just worked on one story last week about hijacking.

So I started to think.  I know that two fellow alumni are working at two different airports.  I can try to contact them first thing tomorrow morning.  Another former colleague is now working in a key position at a web portal and he can help me locate eyewitnesses through a blog over there.  Another current colleague has a younger fellow alumnus working at China Southern Airilnes and he can inquire too.  That night, I sent an SMS to that former colleague and expressed my hope that he would publicize this as a "major incident" for a blog.  But at this point in time, I still had not established a blog at that website.

Early morning on March 11, I established a blog that my former colleague highlighted in bold red on the front page of the web portal.  The title was <Southern Weekend is urgently seeking passengers on China Southern Airlines flight CZ6901 on March 7>.  I posted my mobile telephone number there.  Meanwhile, my fellow alumni gave me the bad news -- they were not present at the Urumqi, Lanzhou or Beijing airports and therefore they have not seen the so-called <Internal notice> from the China Civil Aviation Administration.  But I was able to obtain a clue from the Internet -- over at the Shumu Community forum, a netizen with ID "Luckie" had posted from Zhongchuan airport in Lanzhou on March 7 and described his experience during more than ten hours there.

So I asked a fellow alumnus for his Shumu ID and password and I sent an email to Luckie.  I prayed that he would agree to be interviewed.

A colleague then sent me an SMS with the name and mobile telephone number of a first-class passenger on CZ6901 that day.  The colleague said that the standard procedure at China Southern Airlines is to retain information about passengers for only three days.  Therefore, this fellow alumnus friend working at China Southern Airlines would ordinarily not have that information.  But this particular passenger had reserved an extra ticket, which explained why his information was retained for a longer time.  The heavens were helping me!

I called that number immediately.  The voice over there was hesitant: "How did you find my number?  It is not appropriate for me to speak.  The relevant authorities will disclose the information.  It is not appropriate for me to speak ..."  I tried emotional and rational appeals for more than ten minutes.  This passenger was steel-willed and refused to talk.  I hung up the telephone in extreme disappointment.

It was 12:11pm.  Half a day had gone by already.  Suddenly an unfamiliar telephone number appeared on my mobile telephone.  But the person hung up after one ring.

I called back.  The other party said: "I was on that airplane.  I read your blog."

Oh my God!  I had published my blog post at 9:04am.  In three hours' time, a targeted person had found me.  I was astonished by and grateful for the speed of modern communication methods.

The following is what that person told me:

On March 7, the airplane was scheduled to depart at 10:30am.  The airplane was delayed for about 10 minutes.  At that time, everybody was already on board, so we must be waiting for the permission to take off.  The flight was normal thereafter.

After flying for about an hour, a passenger remarked that there was the smell of gasoline.  The attendant also smelled it because it was too strong.

We were flying on a Boeing 757 that day.  The plane was not big, and the rest rooms were located between the first-class cabin and the economy cabin.  There were more than 200 passengers.  The airplane was not full, because there were two vacant rows of seats in the rear.

I was seated towards the back, and I heard a quarrel.  An Uyghur woman about 20 years old was on her feet.  This Uyghur woman was seated towards the front to my right.  She was probably in the fourth or fifth row of the economy-class cabin.

A man went over there.  My guess was that he was the security guard.  He held the woman down and found a bottle.  He removed the bottle and then escorted her to the restroom.

We had no idea what was happening.  There was no announcement.  During the entire process, there was no chaos.  It was very calm.  At least I felt very calm.  Someone in the rear slept through the whole thing without being aware at all.

At past noon, we began to feel that the airplane was descending.  An announcement came that there was an emergency situation and the airplane was going to land at Zhongchuan Airport in the city of Lanzhou.  A few minutes after that announcement, the airplane touched ground.

According to the flight schedule, the airplane was due to land in Beijing at 2:05pm.  Instead it landed in Zhongchuan airport (Lanzhou city) at 12:46pm.

<Southern Metropolis Daily> reported that the China Civil Aviation Administration issued an internal urgent notice that the suspects had intended to ignite inflammable material inside the restroom in order to blow up the airplane.  However, the flight crew foiled the plot in time.

There were two suspects.  The notice said that the preliminary investigation showed that there were major gaps in airport security in Xinjaing which almost allowed a tragedy to occur.

After the airplane landed, the Uyghur woman was taken away.

Xinjiang Autonomous Rule Region chairman Nur Bekri was attending the two Congresses in Beijing.  He said that the unscheduled landing was due to "people attempting to create an air disaster."  He said: "Based upon what is known at this point, there was an attempt to create an air disaster.  Fortunately, the flight crew took decisive action.  They discovered the plot in time and prevented the action.  This incident had just happened.  We are investigating who these people are, where they came from, what their purpose is and what their backgrounds are."

After the airplane landed, netizen Luckie's post mentioned: "The airport personnel said: We cannot let a single suspect go to Beijing.  We must get to the bottom of this in Lanzhou."

The earliest post from Luckie was posted at 6:10pm on March 7.  The post appeared at the New Express area of Shumu Community.  The post said: "I was flying from Urumqi to Beijing.  Halfway there, someone was found to be carrying gasoline and behaving oddly.  The airplane was forced to land in Lanzhou.  The police took away four Uyghur persons (note: this remains to be confirmed).  We went through a new round of inspection at the airport.  Many people were interrogated.  We have been waiting for six hours already.  We don't know when we can leave.  Everybody is extremely agitated.  What rotten luck!"

Periodically, Luckie would use his notebook computer and wireless card to post from the airport.

When asked "if the airport inspection did not discover it, then how was it uncovered on the airplane?" the explanation from Luckie at 6:20pm was that "the bottle was opened on the airplane and many people smelled gasoline.  That traveler took the gasoline into the restroom and remained in there for a long time."

Then at 6:20pm again: "They are registering information about everybody right now.  I don't know if I can get back to Beijing today ... the female passenger who carried the gasoline had used perfume to cover up the smell.  It must have been intentional."

"I am lucky to have escaped," reflected Luckie.

6:53pm: "It's been six-and-a-half hours.  Everybody has been registered.  They say that they have to issue new tickets to us.  I don't know if we can leave today.  More than 200 people are stuck here.  They are not even providing decent service."

8:38pm: "it's been eight hours already.  They have just distributed rice boxes.  This matter has alarmed the public security bureaus of several provinces as well as the National Security Ministry.  Supposedly, four cans of gasoline had been found."

8:49pm: "Among the four individuals were foreigners, who are believed to be Eastern Turkestan elements."

9:04pm: "We have been on the ground for eight-and-a-half hours and we are not going anywhere.  I guess we won't make it back to Beijing tonight.  The airport personnel said: We cannot let a single suspect go to Beijing.  We must get to the bottom of this in Lanzhou."

11:22pm: "Eleven hours have gone by.  They are still taking down statements from people.  Through our strong insistence, they have provided Chinese chess sets and poker cards.  I don't know if they intend to keep us here overnight."

11:32pm: "It was obviously a case of sloppy inspection, but we get to suffer the consequences."

As Luckie wrote, the obvious problem was just how several canisters of gasoline got through airport inspection.  There was not much technical subtlety with this type of method.

The information showed that since May 1, 2007, the China Civil Aviation Administration has required that all domestic airline passengers may carry not more than 1 liter of non-alcoholic liquid when they travel.  The liquid must be inspected before being allowed on board.

On May 7, 2002, a China Northern Airilnes McDonnell 82 airplane was flying from Beijing to Dalian.  At 20 kilometers to the east of Dalian airport, that airplane plunged into the sea.  The ensuing investigation showed that a passenger brought inflammable liquid onto the airplane.  As the airplane got ready to land, the liquid caught fire and the airplane went out of control.

On February 5, 2003, the Civil Aviation Administration issued the <Public Notice from the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration concerning the regulations on passengers bringing fluid onto civilian airplanes>.  The rules require rigorous inspection of the fluids brought by passengers in order to ensure safety in the skies.

Nevertheless, the new rules of 2007 were still unable to prevent this case from happening.

During the two Congresses, China Civil Aviation Administration chief Li Jiaqiang was interviewed by the media and said the fact that this airplane eventually landed safely with the passengers and crew intact showed that the overall safety measures in air transportation in China are rigorous.

He said: "Over the past years, the safety level of Chinese civilian aviation is amongst the world leaders.  We have the ability to guarantee air transportation safety across our vast country."

The information that I obtained later from Beijing airport was that CZ6901 landed there at 6:02am the next morning.

That day, I also contacted a colleague working in Lanzhou media.  He explained the entire process by which Zhongchuan airport handled the case and even had some photographs.  But he wanted to consider whether the information ought to be disclosed.  The Southern Weekend editors also contacted an anti-terrorism expert in China.  Other colleagues did their best to locate persons close to the incident.  But none of this matters anymore, because on the afternoon of March 11, this story was aborted for reasons that everybody knows about. [Translator's note: This is the standard terminology to describe a ban order from the Central Publicity Department or some other relevant department]

What a pity!

Latest news: Today, China Southern Airlines chairman Liu Chaoyong said that a female passenger came out of the restroom and passed by the flight attendant who detected a suspicious smell.  The attendant alertly sensed that the smell was suspicious.  Then she smelled the scent of perfume and gasoline in front of the restroom.  The attendant immediately searched the restroom and ultimately found an inflammable substance inside the garbage bin of the restroom.

The attendant notified the airplane security guard immediately.  Based upon how the female passenger spoke and acted, they realized that the male passenger next to her was a companion.  The two individuals were sequestered.  The airplane crew then moved the suspicious substance into the special container bin for handling such materials.  The airplane made an unscheduled stop at the Lanzhou airport.  The two suspects were taken away by the police.

Liu Chaoyong said that the preliminary analysis was that the two individuals intended to stow away the inflammable material and then take action at the appropriate moment.  Fortunately, the flight attendant foiled the plot in time.

Related Links:

Terror threat is real, says Xinjiang chief; Claims that airliner plot was faked cause anger
Raymond Li and Ng Tze-wei in Beijing
12 March 2008
South China Morning Post

Xinjiang's chief lashed out yesterday at western claims that the foiled terrorist attacks on a Beijing-bound plane were fake or a pretext to crack down on Uygurs.

"I notice that there was some irresponsible reporting by foreign media and some so-called politicians and academics," the autonomous region's chairman, Nuer Baikeli, said on the sidelines of the National People's Congress.  "They expressed doubts that this was probably some incident created by the Chinese Communist Party in an attempt to crack down on certain ethnic groups. I am very angry."

Mr Baikeli said any attack on a civilian aircraft should be considered a terrorist attack.  "How can you apply double standards to this? It's unbelievable," he said.

Exiled Uygur dissident Rebiya Kadeer was quoted by Agence France-Presse on Monday as accusing Beijing of fabricating the plots to taint the name of her community.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang denied the accusation. "These people, like Rebiya Kadeer, link the government's efforts to strike hard against terrorism and connect it to the majority of the Uygur people, which is extremely insidious."

Terrorism, separatism and extremism have been named by the central government as major destabilising factors in predominantly Muslim Xinjiang.

Quoting an unnamed official, Global Times, a paper affiliated to the Communist Party's mouthpiece, People's Daily, reported yesterday that slack Xinjiang airport staff provided the opportunity for the attempted attack. A 19-year-old Uygur woman from Kuche, Xinjiang, was able to carry a mineral-water bottle and two beverage cans through security checks for business travellers manned by a relatively old guard at Urumqi airport.

Despite guidelines barring travellers from carrying beverages on board a plane, the paper said the security worker apparently dropped his guard to let the woman through after she took two mouthfuls from the bottle. The woman was later found locked in an aircraft toilet on China Southern flight CZ6901 with a number of cans filled with petrol.

The plane made an emergency landing in Lanzhou, Gansu , at about 12.40pm on Friday after leaving Urumqi at 10.35am.  None of the passengers or crew were hurt and the plane flew on to Beijing on Saturday morning after being held for several hours. Airline sources said four Uygurs, including the 19-year-old woman, were taken away by police for questioning.

Xinjiang party chief Wang Lequan said on Sunday, when officials for the first time revealed details of the foiled aircraft attack, that the Olympics were a target for the region's terrorists.   A group broken up in Urumqi in January was plotting to attack the Beijing Games in collaboration with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uygur group allegedly linked to al-Qaeda, Mr Wang said.  But officials have been quick to quash speculation that Olympic security will be threatened.  "We have the absolute ability and confidence to secure the Olympics security," Mr Baikeli said. "Our airport security is very well placed."

However, according to the Global Times, the woman took several flights to assess airport and on-board facilities as well as security-check procedures so she could take advantage of the security lapse.  Mr Baikeli said the investigation was continuing but "according to my personal analysis [this attack] must involve forces outside China". 


11日一早,建好了博客,并被挂得老高,还红体已示突出:《〈南方周末〉紧急寻人!寻找3月7日南航CZ6901航班旅客》,留下了我的手机号码;同学那边却传来坏消息,由于不是在当事的三个机场:乌鲁木齐地窝堡机场、兰州中川机场和首都机场,所以没能看到民航总局的一份所谓《内部通报》。不过我还是在网上搜索到一个线索,在水木社区,有个ID“luckie”的网友曾在3月 7日的中川机场发帖,讲述在机场等待10多个小时的经过。





“逃过一劫啊。” luckie感叹。