LATE on Wednesday night, Fabio (Fab) Contu of Cape Paterson and his friend Troy Joyner of Woolamai boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH128 for Kuala Lumpur. Good friends who have been surfing together since they were teenagers, they were heading off on another surfing holiday.
This is their account of the hours that followed, when MH128 became involved in a bomb threat. While the threat has been uncovered as a hoax, of course the passengers and crew didn’t know that at the time.
The lights were dimmed for take-off and passengers were settling in for the night flight. The drama started about 10 minutes into the ascent, when a male steward pointed his torch at a man, telling him to sit down. The passenger did not sit, and the steward approached the man, repeating “You need to sit down.”
“The man started running towards the front of the plane,” Troy recounted later. “It looked like he was carrying something. He said he had a bomb and he was taking it to the pilot. We sat stunned. I looked up the aisle to see what was happening and I noticed the male steward on the phone trying to call the pilot – I could see panic was starting to set in. I could hear the cabin crew talking in a different language with panic in their voices.
“Fab and I, and I imagine the rest of the passengers, were starting to feel nervous and scared that there was a bomb on the plane, and the man was going to blow us up. A minute later, the man came running back towards us. Fab and I knew it was serious; we both feared for our lives.
“At that point a mature female stewardess told the bomber to stop and put herself in the aisle, blocking his pathway. As he approached, she yelled out ‘Help!’ We didn’t need any more instruction, Fab and I jumped out of our seats. The man ran into the stewardess, I grabbed him by the neck and put him in a choker hold. Fab was right behind me and grabbed him round the torso.”
Other passengers were supporting Troy and Fab, telling them to keep the man’s hands away from his body. Fabio, who was holding the man, could feel something hard and plastic under his shirt, and lifted up the man’s shirt.
“I saw a black device about 40 centimetres round and 15 centimetres high,” Fabio said. “I ripped it off and passed it to a nearby passenger, then I checked his hands to make sure he wasn’t holding a trigger mechanism – they were empty.”
By this time other passengers and crew had hold of the man’s legs. They put him on the ground chest down, and Fabio secured the man’s arms behind his back with cable ties supplied by the crew. Another passenger secured his feet. Then the man was cable tied to the frame of the seat where he lay on the floor, occasionally moaning and yelling obscenities.
“Watching on, all I could think about was that I may never see my wife and two boys again,” Troy said. “We thought we were going to die.”
By this time the pilot had arranged an emergency landing back in Melbourne and turned the plane around. “Before we knew it we were putting on our seatbelts ready for landing,” said Troy.
Once they landed, the passengers spent 90 minutes on board, waiting with the offender and what they believed was a bomb. Both men felt there could have been a way to make the situation less distressing.
“We sat waiting with very little information from the crew, and none from the authorities,” Troy said. “Ninety minutes is a very long time to wait when you’re fearing for your life. As a passenger sitting on a plane with what we thought was a bomb, this wait time was excruciatingly unsettling. There were lots of children on the plane who would have been terrified.
“As a father I really felt for these kids and I was angry that they had to go through it. I wish they could have been evacuated earlier so they didn’t have to wait with what we believed was a bomb on board and walk past this guy as they walked to the bathroom.”
Once they had safety disembarked, Troy and Fabio were overwhelmed with the gratitude shown by passengers, who were quick to give hugs and thanks yous. They don’t see themselves as heroes, just blokes doing what needed to be done.
“We didn’t have time to think. We didn’t need to talk to each other. We just did what we had to do,” Fabio said.
Although they have since learned the bomb threat was a hoax, they said the trauma and stress was very real for all of those who were on board. “Now we just want to go surfing,” Troy said.
They also paid tribute to the stewardess who put her life on the line by blocking the man and asking for help. “She needs a pay rise,” Fabio said.
Undeterred by their experience, the duo caught a flight to Malaysia on Thursday and are now in Sumatra catching some big surf.
Nina Barry-Macaulay is Fabio Contu’s fiancé.