BIC family survives attempted terrorist attack on Northwest airliner
GRANTHAM, Pa. (Jan. 6, 2010)—On Christmas day, Jeff Williams, pastor of Nappanee (Ind.) Brethren in Christ Church, boarded the now-infamous Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. He and his wife, Krista, were returning to the U.S. from Ethiopia with their newly adopted daughter, Emily. Despite last-minute complications with Emily’s visa and miscommunications between the Ethiopian and U.S. embassies, the couple was able to make their flight home with their new daughter.
“Somehow it had all come together,” Williams recalls. “We had a definite sense that God’s hand had played a significant role in making it all work. We knew of a great number of people who were praying back home for us and our new daughter, and we were so excited to get home.”
But as the plane neared its destination, the unthinkable happened.
“We heard a loud pop [behind us],” Williams reports. “It sounded like a balloon or perhaps a firecracker. We looked around for the source of the noise, but no one seemed to know where it had come from.
“I had just turned back again in my seat when I heard a flight attendant shout, ‘What are you doing sir?’ We started to smell gunpowder, and soon cries of ‘Fire!’ could be heard.”
Four rows behind Williams, a passenger named Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab had allegedly tried to detonate an explosive device. The attempt, officials say, was thwarted by the failure of the explosive’s detonator. Despite this malfunction, AbdulMattallab had sparked a flame, igniting his clothing.
“[The] man’s mid-section was on fire, and people were either running frantically away from the fire or frantically to the fire to put it out,” says Williams, adding, “It was absolute chaos.”
While the crew worked to put out the fire, Williams says that it occurred to him that he, his wife, and his daughter might die. “I specifically remember feeling sad for my three other children back home,” he says. “At this time, I—and many others—did not think that someone had tried to set off a bomb on the plane. We thought that perhaps a man had decided to light a firework or something and had set himself and the plane on fire.”
Eventually, the fire was extinguished and shortly afterwards, the plane landed. “As the wheels touched down, the plane erupted in applause and celebration,” Williams shares.
AbdulMutallab, as well as others who had suffered burn wounds, were escorted off the plane immediately. The rest of the passengers, including Williams and his family, spent six more hours at the airport being searched and questioned. Finally, after much waiting and uncertainty, the family was allowed to go home.
It was only on the ride from the airport that Williams realized the truth about what had occurred on that flight. “The six hours in the airport suggested that we were dealing with more than a man with fireworks,” he states. “We realized that it was a bomb he had had, and while we knew already we almost died, this news made that realization even more profound.”
Days after the incident, Williams says that he is still processing the experience. “In the aftermath of the event, I have found the fact that someone tried to blow up the plane I and my wife and daughter were on is something that I can’t quite shake,” he relates. “I had thought that I could shrug it off and go on with life. But knowing death was that close really does make an impact, despite the fact that I don’t remember feeling particularly scared when I was on the plane and thought death might be near.”
Although Williams continues to wrestle with the personal ramifications of the experience, he has had no trouble deciphering his attitude towards the attacker and all that led up to the attempted bombing.
“The response of our culture has been to criticize the security lapses and to even politicize the event as a criticism against the present administration. Although I recognize that some security lapses did occur, I don’t feel particularly upset with either,” he says. “Neither do I feel angry with the man who did all this. I don’t understand anyone wanting to do something like what he attempted, but I certainly don’t feel hatred toward him nor toward the individuals who planned this.”
For Williams, it all comes down to how faith informs his decisions and reactions to life events. “I have thought about what my reaction should be, as a Christian in general and as a Brethren in Christ in particular,” he says. “What does it mean to offer love and mercy to someone like this man, who tried to blow me and my family up? Not hating him is one thing, but how can I love him? What would that look like? What can I do to help counter this cycle of hatred and violence?”
Part of the answer, Williams recognizes, has to do with identifying the fallacy of personal security. “This event has crystallized for me the truth that we as Christians are sent into the world as sheep among wolves,” he shares. “There is no assurance of our own safety. In fact, our own safety is not even to be our highest priority. If we are to carry out our mission in this world, particularly as people who take Jesus’ call to non-violence seriously, we need to be willing to make the mission more important than our own physical safety and well-being.”
It also has to do, Williams relates, with recognizing God’s provision. “Through it all, both the adoption process and the flight home, we are only now beginning to realize how involved our gracious God was every step of the way,” he acknowledges.
Mere days before the incident, the Great Lakes Regional Conference had called for Conference-wide prayer on behalf of the Williams family and their trip to Ethiopia.
“We get goose bumps thinking about the power of prayer and what kind of miracle really took place on that airplane,” he says. “It inevitably leads us to conclude that we are living only because of the grace of God, which in turns leads us to ask how we can best live our lives for the God who gave us ‘new’ life.”