A COUPLE have told of their terror after their plane home from Australia was nearly brought down by a passenger repeatedly lighting fires in the toilets.
Paul and Gillian Mason said their Etihad Airway jet was forced to make an emergency landing in Indonesia, where crew members attempted to find the culprit.
After a security search of passengers, the Boeing 777-300ER was allowed to take off again, but more fires broke out.
The couple said a member of the air crew said the whole plane would have gone up in flames if the fire had been spotted 90 seconds later.
The airline has been criticised for letting the flight continue.
The couple from Crosshill Road, Blackburn, who had just finished a month-long visit to Tasmania, said the overnight journey was the ‘scariest thing that’s ever happened to us’.
Mr Mason is a former chairman of Thwaites Empire Theatre in Blackburn and his wife was a teacher at Pendle Community High School in Colne for 25 years.
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He said: “It’s hard to come to terms with the fact we were literally seconds from plunging into the ocean.
“It was extremely frightening and we just feel very grateful to be here.
“It’s the most scary thing that’s ever happened to us and easily the worst journey of our lives.”
Mrs Mason said: “The first thing that happened was a slightly worrying announcement from the captain reminding people they couldn’t smoke in the toilet.
“Then a while later I was aware of the smell of smoke, and all the cabin crew were running down to the toilet behind us. It didn’t smell like cigarettes and the fire alarm was going off.
“A couple behind us said they saw flames and suddenly one of the crew was using fire extinguishers to put it out.
“One of the crew said later that the whole plane would have gone up if the fire had been left another 90 seconds without being noticed.
“The pilot then said there had been a serious breach of security and we’d have to land in Jakarta.”
“It’s hard to come to terms with the fact we were literally seconds from plunging into the ocean. It was extremely frightening and we just feel very grateful to be here.”
Mrs Mason, 60, said everyone in economy class was then forced to exit the plane after landing, along with their luggage, before being searched in the airport.
Nothing was found and the passengers were allowed back on board.
She said: “We were all making the point that the person who was lighting the fires would still be on the plane. They let everyone back on and everyone in business and first class had stayed on.
“I definitely didn’t want to get back on because we knew there was likely to be another problem, but apparently we had to because the Indonesian authorities wouldn’t let us stay in Jakarta.”
The flight then took off again with crew members monitoring the toilets, and there were no problems for about five hours.
But Mrs Mason said: “Everyone was really hungry, as we hadn’t eaten anything for hours and hours, and then there was another fire when the crew started serving food.
This time there was nowhere to land so they just had to put it out and carry on.”
Passengers said there were three fires en-route from Jakarta to Abu Dhabi.
Mr Mason, 61, said: “There was just some idiot on board who had no concern for their own safety or anyone else’s.
“We didn’t think it was terrorism or anything like that, but we knew it was an extremely dangerous situation and we felt very vulnerable.”
The ordeal lasted more than 40 hours as the couple missed their connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to Manchester. It meant they arrived home at 8am yesterday, about 17 hours behind schedule.
They have praised the cabin crew for the way they handled the fires, but questioned the decision to take off from Jakarta with the arsonist still on board.
On arrival in Abu Dhabi police questioned passengers in small groups in the hope of finding the suspect.
According to reports yesterday, there had been no arrests but police were investigating a female passenger.
A spokesperson for Etihad Airways said: “A comprehensive investigation into the incidents onboard EY 461 from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi on 17 February is still underway.
“The aircraft was searched and released shortly after arrival at Abu Dhabi when it was confirmed it was safe to do so. Etihad Airways is co-operating fully in this investigation.
“This follows a precautionary diversion to Jakarta where a security assessment of the situation was conducted with local authorities after smoke was detected in two of the toilets.
“The decision was made to resume the flight after a security search of the aircraft, passengers and their carry-on luggage.
“To further ensure the safety of passengers and crew, the captain implemented strict controls over passenger movement in the cabin, particularly passenger access to the toilets. The normal service was suspended to allow cabin crew to monitor and ensure the security of the cabin.”