9/11 shaped incident on plane
The lives of the man who charged the cockpit and one who subdued him were influenced, even changed, by that day.
By COLLEEN JENKINS, BEN MONTGOMERY and JANET ZINK
Published July 8, 2006
TAMPA - Gordon Montoya was sitting in Row 2 on Thursday night, getting close to finishing the crossword puzzle in USA Today. The seat belt light was on, and Delta Flight 1850 was set to touch down in 10 minutes.
Then came the sound of pounding footsteps. Montoya saw a man running at full tilt toward the cockpit.
The man barreled into the door, fell back, then slammed it again, trying to get inside.
Before 9/11, maybe Montoya would have sat still. Maybe he would have let someone else handle the chaotic situation.
But like many frequent travelers, he had become more vigilant. So without really thinking, Montoya recalled Friday, the former high school wrestler bolted from his seat "like lightning," lifted the man off the ground and slammed him to the floor in front of the cockpit.
The two grappled for eight or 10 seconds. A woman traveling with Montoya began to pray, Lord protect Gordon. Give him strength.
The 52-year-old businessman, who stays fit by lifting weights and running at the YMCA near his home in Brandon, wound up sitting on top of his fellow passenger until the plane landed.
That man, too, had been changed post-9/11.
Neftali Alexander Lai-Mendez, a 24-year-old military police officer, was five days from being discharged from the Army. Six months back from Iraq, his mind remained deeply troubled, his brother said.
Lai-Mendez was flying home to Tampa to get the help he had been denied by the military, his family said. He ended up in handcuffs.
On Friday, Lai-Mendez remained in custody for a mental health evaluation at St. Joseph's Hospital. He will be held under the Baker Act for 72 hours.
Late Friday, prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office were still considering whether Lai-Mendez will face federal charges of interference with a flight crew. But officials at the airport and Delta said security measures put in place after 9/11 worked.
None of the 125 passengers traveling from La Guardia was hurt. Lai-Mendez did not have weapons, and the cockpit door was a sturdy new one capable of withstanding bullets and small explosives.
No air marshals were on the plane, and officials credited passengers for their swift but measured response.
"Passengers were not going to allow something to happen," said Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International Airport. "They're heroes."
The public display Thursday highlighted what had been a quiet personal struggle since Lai-Mendez joined the Army in March 2004, said his 19-year-old brother, Robert Cordero-Mendez.
Last September, Lai-Mendez left for Iraq, where he helped load field artillery guns. The oldest of five children, and a New Yorker until a few years ago, Lai-Mendez complained to his family of feeling depressed and paranoid. He asked the Army for help. So did his mother, Cordero-Mendez said.
"They just told him he was using it as an excuse to get out," he said.
Deb Skidmore, a spokeswoman at Fort Riley, Kan., where Lai-Mendez was stationed, said he returned from Iraq in January as part of a regular rotation of troops.
While Army spokesmen could not comment specifically on his mental health, they said that treatment is available for soldiers in Iraq and that all members of the military are rigorously screened upon return from combat duty.
"Leaders look at their subordinates as family," said Lt. Col. Christian Kubik, also based at Fort Riley. "It would be like if my son said he was depressed. Would I take that lightly? Heck no."
On May 25, Lai-Mendez, who has no military disciplinary record and no criminal record in Florida, went on leave in anticipation of his July 12 discharge from the Army.
He called his brother from New York.
"He told me people were trying to kill him," Cordero-Mendez said Friday, standing in the dark doorway of the family's second-floor apartment near the University of South Florida.
"I had to go get him."
Lai-Mendez had told his brother before that he felt like people were following him. He wanted to get medical attention in New York, but their mother wanted him to wait until he got to Tampa.
Lai-Mendez grew increasingly agitated as the plane neared Tampa on Thursday night, passengers and police reports said. About 15 or 20 minutes before the plane was scheduled to land, he got up from his seat next to his brother and walked to the back of the plane.
Wearing a New York Yankees hat but not his uniform, he tapped people on the shoulder and pointed to Asian tattoos on his arms, passenger Jason Moore said.
A flight attendant asked him to return to his seat. Cordero-Mendez tried to coax his brother to listen.
Lai-Mendez ran full speed toward first class instead.
Herb Freitag, pastor at Chapel by the Sea in Clearwater Beach, recently preached a sermon titled "Dangerous Decisions." From his first-class seat he now saw a man rush the cockpit door.
"No! No!" screamed the flight attendant near the cockpit.
Freitag joined Montoya and two other men in holding down Lai-Mendez.
Cordero-Mendez arrived at the front of the plane and tried again to calm his brother.
"Man, that was really stupid," Cordero-Mendez said, according to Freitag's account.
Lai-Mendez said nothing.
Airport police, who got the call about a disturbance on the flight at 11:12 p.m., met it at the gate.
Some women cried as they left the plane. James Abbott of St. Petersburg, who also helped restrain Lai-Mendez, worried the incident would get blown out of proportion.
"What I did was what any American would have done in the circumstance," he said. "I just really hope this guy gets the help he apparently needs."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3337.
[Last modified July 9, 2006, 09:02:51]
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