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More Details Emerge in Airline Shooting Death

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Details are emerging about this past week's fatal shooting at Miami International Airport. Federal air marshals shot and killed a 44-year-old Florida man on the jet way of an American Airlines flight. Officials say Rigoberto Alpizar was acting erratically and they say claim to have a bomb. No bomb was found. Now some passengers are coming forward to give their version of events. NPR's Eric Weiner set out to learn more.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

Jorge Borrelli, an architect, had just settled into his seat directly behind the first-class section of the Boeing 757 when suddenly he saw a fellow passenger bolting towards the front of the plane.

Mr. JORGE BORRELLI: Bolting like he was trying to get off the plane very quick, like maybe he had forgotten something or was on the wrong plane, and then within five or 10 seconds after that, his wife came up saying, `My husband is sick and he needs to get off the plane.' I assumed he needed to throw up and didn't want to throw up on the plane.

WEINER: The agitated man, Rigoberto Alpizar, was now in the jet way where he was confronted by two armed air marshals. Passenger Jorge Borrelli says the sound from the jet way was muffled. He acknowledges he couldn't hear everything.

Mr. BORRELLI: But I did clearly hear one of the air marshals or someone say to him, `Stop!' And then within a half second, shots were fired.

WEINER: At no point says Borrelli did he hear Alpizar say anything about a bomb.

Mr. BORRELLI: I never heard him say anything. He was not yelling. I would have heard that from the back of the plane I think and so would have a lot of other people and I think a lot of other people would have panicked and tried to get off the plane.

WEINER: That's a version of events corroborated by several other passengers. After the shooting, Alpizar's wife told passengers her husband was suffering from bipolar disorder and had forgotten to take his medication. Federal officials defend the action of the air marshals. David Adams is a spokesman for the Air Marshal Service.

Mr. DAVID ADAMS (Air Marshal Service): This individual posed an imminent threat due to the fact that he said he had a bomb in his bag, refused to comply several times to their commands, and at that point, they had to discharge their weapons to stop this immediate threat.

WEINER: Adams says the marshals are trained to make split-second decisions or, as another marshal put it, not to analyze someone's mental health. An investigation is under way into the incident, but for Rigoberto Alpizar's family and friends, there is only shock and grief.

Mr. PAT McCLANIHAN(ph): Nice guy. Couldn't say a bad thing about him.

WEINER: That's Pat McClanihan, a neighbor. He says he would often seen Alpizar jogging on the streets of Maitland, Florida, an Orlando suburb. He says Alpizar was always friendly, always quick to smile, never he says displaying any signs of mental illness.

Rigoberto Alpizar was born in Costa Rica. That's where he met his wife, an exchange student. They soon moved to Florida and Rigoberto, or Rigo as his friends called him, became a naturalized American citizen, something his family says he was very proud of. The couple was religious. In fact, they were returning from a church-sponsored trip to Ecuador when the shooting took place. Alpizar worked at this Home Depot near Orlando. He was the paint guy, easy going and by all accounts well-liked.

Ms. ALLISON BARNESI(ph): He was always real nice to me. I never would have imagined.

WEINER: Allison Barnesi runs a hotdog stand just outside the Home Depot. She says many of his co-workers were upset and crying when they heard of the shooting. They wouldn't speak on the record, saying that the company has ordered them not to talk to reporters. The passengers on American Airlines Flight 924 saw a very different Rigoberto Alpizar, all agree that for whatever reason he was agitated, perhaps panicked, but speaking from Costa Rica, Alpizar's brother, Carlos, wonders aloud why the air marshals couldn't find a less lethal way to handle the situation.

Mr. CARLOS ALPIZAR: (Through Translator) I know that after 9/11 the US government is very sensitive, but they did not have to shoot him to death. There's no other way to put it. They killed him. They killed him.

WEINER: Carlos Alpizar says he's making arrangements to have his brother's remains flown to his native Costa Rica. Meanwhile in this country, federal and local officials are interviewing witnesses and trying to reconstruct exactly what happened on the American Airlines plane.

Eric Weiner, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner is a national correspondent for NPR.org. Based in Washington, DC, he writes news and analysis for NPR's website.
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