UAE police hunt for Etihad plane arsonist

Abu Dhabi-bound, 250 passenger flight was forced to land in Indonesia after crew discovered fires in the lavatories.

    Abu Dhabi police are investigating the multiple fires set on the flight [AP]
    Abu Dhabi police are investigating the multiple fires set on the flight [AP]

    Emirati authorities are holding 12 people as part of an investigation after multiple fires were lit onboard an Etihad Airways flight from Australia to the United Arab Emirates.

    Whoever had lit the fires was back on the plane with the rest of us with obviously the potential for it to continue.

    Sarah Jeffery, passenger

    Passengers on the Boeing 777-300ER told the AP news agency that as many as five separate fires were lit in toilets over the course of the journey from Melbourne to capital Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

    "Everything was dark and then the cabin crew all came running," said Sarah Jeffery, a midwife from England. "As they opened the toilet door, I saw flames coming out of the bin in the toilet. But they quickly extinguished it. They were very good," she said.

    The plane, carrying 254 passengers and crew, was diverted to Jakarta, Indonesia after the first two fires were discovered.

    Passengers, their carry-on luggage and the airplane were searched. The captain also restricted passenger movement, according to the carrier.

    Caroline Martens, a Norweigan seated in the middle of the plane, said lighters and matches were confiscated before passengers were allowed to re-board.

    But Jeffery said she was troubled by the decision to allow all passengers to re-board and by the lack of police presence on the ground in Indonesia.

    "Obviously we were quite aware at the time that there hadn't been any suspects identified at that point," she said. "Whoever had lit the fires was back on the plane with the rest of us with obviously the potential for it to continue."

    'You've got to be kidding'

    Two hours before arrival in Abu Dhabi, a smoke alarm sounded again and the cabin filled with smoke.

    "You're like: 'you've got to be kidding me!'" Martens said, describing the smoke from the last fire, which happened as the plane flew over the Indian Ocean, as some of the thickest.

    "I freaked out when I looked at the map and we were in the middle of nowhere. That's when we realised this could actually end badly. It's not a joke any more," she said.

    The crew dealt with the smoke and the captain directed crew members to stand at each of the toilets to secure them for the remainder of the flight, according to the airline.

    Jeffery said one of the crew members told her that the fires appeared to have been deliberately set in lavatory drawers where sanitary and sick bags were kept, with the arsonist lighting wax-coated bags because they burned longer.

    Local authorities interviewed passengers and crew upon arrival and the events on the flight are under investigation by the Abu Dhabi police department, the airline said.

    No injuries were reported and no formal arrests have been made.



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