[Written at 2.23 P.M. (16th May) Singapore time, 11:23 P.M. (15th May) Vancouver time.]
As luck would have had it, I was on board the Vancouver-bound flight from Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific CX 838) that was apparently under a bomb threat – which led to the unusual ‘sky display’ of a passenger jetliner being escorted by two military planes (more links: CNN Blogs, BBC, The Straits Times, TodayOnline) visible from the around the vicinity of Vancouver’s airport.
Before boarding CX 838 at Hong Kong International Airport.
Despite being on the flight, I was largely unaware of what was going on. I was stuck in the middle row of seats – which left me with little knowledge of what was going on outside. The only thing I could really remember seeing was the sight of several snow-capped mountains and thinking “oooooh, mountains!” while the plane was making its descent. Several passengers (particularly those near the windows) however, seemed to be captivated by something outside as well … and I initially thought they were admiring the mountains too. o.O
Turned out that they were looking at the military jets. (Which I didn’t know about until later.)
The following pictures of one of the military jets escorting our aircraft was taken by a fellow passenger, Angella Griffith, who happened to be seated near the wing.
Original pictures by Angella Griffith. Colour edited by me.
[Edited: 11.00 A.M. (16th May) Vancouver Time] Another fellow passenger Winston Yuen seated on the opposite side just sent me this picture of the other military jet trailing us from the starboard side.
Original picture by Winston Yuen. Colour edited by me.
Many thanks to Angella and Winston for contributing the above photographs and allowing me to use them on my blog!
Initially, things seemed completely normal.
The plane stopped at the terminal as per normal to let us passengers disembark (no, we were not taken to an isolated part of the airport unlike what media reports suggested). We also went through immigration as per normal and headed to our assigned baggage carousel (number 23). Passengers were milling around waiting for their bags to come around – with several already collecting theirs’ and leaving the area – until things suddenly took a turn half an hour later.
No information given to us.
It seemed as though no new bags were showing up on the carousel, which left several of us quite frustrated. The scene became even more confusing when big, burly armed guards suddenly showed on the scene, ordering all of us to back away from the carousel and shouting at anyone who tried to pick up their bags. They then positioned themselves all around the carousel (about five to six of them altogether), and basically stood there. No explanation, nothing.
A few minutes later, the baggage carousel completely grinded to a halt.
Meanwhile, all the passengers were simply looking around, bewildered – with several annoyed that their bags weren’t showing up/not allowed to pick their bags.
And when anyone tried to approach the guards, they were either given a very rude answer – I overheard “If it comes out, it comes out. Otherwise, just wait!” (which isn’t very helpful) – or given a look as if the guards are doing them a favour by being there.
Announcements over the PA system were vague and non-explanatory as well. As a result, various theories were being devised among the passengers, such as a possible ‘technical glitch’, ‘the carousel stopped working’, ‘the people at the baggage department are inefficient’ and of course, the possible ‘security threat’. (Although most people were swayed towards the first reason.)
One hour later – the guards were still there, the carousel still non-moving, and the PA system still repeating the same vague, non-specific messages.
Cut off from the outside world.
In addition to all that, mobile lines from the airport to within Canada seemed to be completely cut. We couldn’t reach my aunt who was waiting for us at the arrival hall to let her know we were held up. Neither could we call anyone else within Canada to let them know of our situation.
Tempers were beginning to rise – but minutes later, the carousels suddenly started again. The guards then informed us that baggages already on the carousel can be collected whereas those that haven’t showed up are subjected to additional security screening which can take up to two hours.
Still no bags.
My relatives and I have a total of eight check-in baggages in total, none which have showed up despite having waited for close to three hours by then. Needless to say, we were extremely miffed as we were forced to stay in the airport longer with no explanation, whatsoever (and at that point, most people felt that what was going on was more of a technical glitch than anything else).
So, we parked ourselves on benches around the area and waited. (Quite a few passengers – quite possibly Vancouver residents – opt to leave earlier and have their baggages delivered to their homes. However, us tourists have no other choice but to wait because we need our stuff!)
We learned about things the hard way – from someone else (and the media).
It was almost approaching five when a fellow passenger approached me and informed me that a friend of her’s has just contacted her after seeing the latest news and apparently, our plane was involved in an alleged security/bomb threat.
In response, my jaw fell.
You mean, uninvolved people from the rest of the world knew about it and yet us – the people directly affected – were completely kept in the dark?!
Okay, but that wasn’t really my concern. The words ‘security’ and ‘bomb threat’ sent a chilling shiver down my spine.
In response, I switched on my laptop and googled for related news. Sure enough, several media reports from the likes of CNN , BBC, The Straits Times and Vancouver Sun were staring back at me in the face. Eventually, we passed the information down to the rest of the stranded passenger group – who crowded around and stared at my screen.
Even then, the security and airport staff at Vancouver Airport kept completely mum about the situation. They continued remaining flippant even when we prodded them for details hinting that we already knew what was going on. (Quite understandable, really – methinks they don’t want to raise an alarm. But on the other hand, I still feel they could have handled the situation better because being forced to wait around when you don’t know why can be very frustrating.)
I only started filming the following video after knowing about the security/bomb threat situation.
Scene at the baggage collection area after we (the stranded passengers)
found out about the situation for real.
As the video suggests, some parts of the preliminary media reports about our flight were untrue. We weren’t forced to land in Vancouver. We were going to land in Vancouver right from the beginning. (It was our flight destination!) Rather, we were escorted by the military jets during our descent instead of landing independently.
Me, with some of the other stranded fellow passengers.
We just HAD to take a photo together after knowing we just survived a bomb threat.
Leaving the Airport
All the affected passengers (and yours’ truly) were also subjected to additional screening procedures before we were allowed to leave the restricted zone. All baggages had to be re-x-ray’ed and scanned by sniffer dogs (despite how we were held back long enough for supposedly additional safety checks). Additionally, the fact that there were eight other armed guards in the screening room who were staring at us as if we were potential criminals didn’t help the situation one bit.
Methinks my poor grandma was confused. And my mum, aunt and myself didn’t want to tell her about the situation in too much detail because she alarms easily.
Eventually, I stepped out into the bright sunshine and was interviewed by a local (Vancouver) news station on the way out. By then, I was too flustered to string a coherent sentence together so I hope they don’t air my response.
It’s been more than ten hours since the incident and the verdict is out – no bomb has been found on the plane – which is a relief, really. All of us were indeed happy to have emerged alive and kicking. And even then, the prospect of having flown in a plane (with a potential bomb) is extremely unnerving.
The flight itself was pretty uneventful. I’ve had a pretty restful sleep during the thirteen hour long journey … and was only rudely awakened once or twice by the air stewardess rolling the food trolley into my head (my head tends to droop beyond the seat when I’m in a deep sleep so, my fault – I guess). Plus, the plane landing was one of the smoothest I’ve ever encountered so the whole twist of events was rather puzzling.