ABU DHABI // Passengers have described the dramatic scenes on board a flight from Australia when alarms sounded and smoke poured into the cabin.
The Etihad Airways flight from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi was diverted to Jakarta as the smoke billowed from the plane’s lavatories.
The plane took off again but more smoke was detected, and 12 passengers were held for questioning by security authorities when the flight landed in Abu Dhabi.
Jared Marshall, 34, a cameraman and photographer from Melbourne, said an alarm sounded and red lights flashed outside a lavatory in the middle of the plane, five rows ahead of his seat, about five hours after the flight took off, when most passengers were asleep.
An attendant opened the door and “smoke poured into the cabin”, he said. “They spent some time with fire extinguishers and water to put out the fire. We all assumed it was electrical.”
The pilot announced that it was illegal to smoke on the plane. Soon afterwards, another incident occurred in the rear lavatory, Mr Marshall said.
Some passengers in the back said they saw flames and smoke, though he did not see flames himself.
“You could see the concern on the attendants’ faces as they rushed to extinguish the fires,” Mr Marshall said.
“The mood among the passengers was more one of disbelief than fear.”
Heather Bullard, 60, a British insurance adviser who was seated near a lavatory, said: “I was asked if I had noticed anyone using the toilet but as I was sleeping I couldn’t help.”
When the plane landed in Indonesia there was a security search of the aircraft, passengers and carry-on luggage.
Once the flight resumed, attendants checked the lavatories after each passenger left, Mr Marshall said, but another alarm sounded and more smoke poured into the cabin.
“You could really sense the alarm and stress of the attendants and passengers at this stage. Everyone was a potential suspect,” he said.
The crew then announced that passengers could not use the lavatories, and stood guard at the doors. Catering services were stopped, though attendants occasionally delivered water, Mr Marshall said.
“The work of the flight attendants was very professional and they remained calm in a very dangerous situation and possibly saved the lives of everyone, and I am amazed that some people have been critical of them for stopping catering services,” he said.
Australian passenger Luke Oliver, 37, praised the cabin crew for their response. They were “very quick to respond each time and remained calm”, he said.
“There was a sense that everyone on board wanted whoever had done this to be caught.”
“By the end of the flight the crew were guarding the toilets. We were just waiting to land and end the ordeal.”
Ms Bullard said attendants tried to compensate for the lack of meal services.
“Security and safety of the passengers was their number one priority, and to put this in place some services had to be sacrificed, ie hot food,” she said.
“They regularly brought round water and muffins.”
Another passenger, Sarah Heather, 31, a British call centre worker, said: “When we got to Abu Dhabi it was quite chaotic.
“We all got taken off to be searched but no one was telling us where to go or what was happening until we got to the Etihad desk.”
Ms Heather questioned whether the flight should have been cancelled before leaving Jakarta.
“Quite scary that this person got back on the flight and did it a third time,” she said.
Ms Bullard, who was flying home after visiting two sons in Australia, described the mood of passengers as the incidents unfolded.
“Some passengers were texting loved ones as they were fearing the worst,” she said.
“So you can get an idea of the rising tension on the plane.”
The flight arrived in Abu Dhabi four hours behind schedule, after a seven-hour journey from Indonesia, at 10.25am on Tuesday.
It is not yet known what caused the smoke, but authorities are still investigating.