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Blind interpreter detained at Philly airport says he has nightmares from arrest

A blind international interpreter, whose crime was to question why his flight was delayed, says he was dragged off a flight, arrested and held in custody in Philadelphia for hours without food or water. He faces arraignment.

Nicola Cantisani was arrested April 4 at the Philadelphia airport after police say he was acting unruly on grounded plane. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff photographer)
Nicola Cantisani was arrested April 4 at the Philadelphia airport after police say he was acting unruly on grounded plane. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff photographer)Read more

A BLIND INTERNATIONAL interpreter who says he was dragged off a Belgium-bound flight, arrested and held in custody in Philadelphia for hours without food or water faces an arraignment Thursday.

His crime: He questioned why his U.S. Airways flight was delayed nearly two hours.

Nicola Cantisani, 61, of Brussels, Belgium, a professional translator who has been blind since birth, was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, police said.

"This is taking airplane security to a new and ridiculous level," said his attorney, A. Charles Peruto Jr. "It's pretty crazy."

Cantisani and his wife, Paola, were returning to Brussels April 4 after visiting family in New York. The couple changed planes at Philadelphia International Airport and boarded the 8:32 p.m. flight.

After the plane sat on the tarmac for some time, passengers were told that the flight would be delayed - without explanation, according to Cantisani. They were unable to use phones, receive attendant service or move from their seats.

"That was the straw that unfortunately broke the camel's back," Cantisani said. "It just got to me: They board you and just taxi you around."

Cantisani said he stood up to request a glass of water and to speak with the crew or captain about the delay, but was told to sit down.

In interviews in Philadelphia and later by phone from Brussels, Cantisani described what he called an "indescribable" chain of events that has given him nightmares.

"I felt I was being kidnapped - like I was a hostage," Cantisani said of the wait.

Cantisani said he spoke with the captain, who told him the plane was having mechanical problems. He then returned to his seat.

Shortly afterward, another passenger made a remark about the crew, prompting three Philadelphia Police officers to escort that man off the plane, Cantisani said.

Then, police tried to remove Cantisani as well, he said.

Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, said the police were called to Gate A-19 because of a disorderly passenger.

"A passenger had become irate over the delay," Vanore said.

Cantisani, unaware of why he was being removed, refused to leave.

He said the officers yanked Cantisani from his seat and dragged him off the plane, injuring his hand, which was gripping his seat belt . Then they forced him into a wheelchair.

At one point, an officer held him "by the throat," he said.

Vanore said that Cantisani had been asked several times to leave the plane but continually refused.

A U.S. Airways representative said Cantisani was an unruly passenger who had refused to exit the plane.

During the struggle with police, Cantisani said, he lost his retractable walking cane, making him unable to navigate.

Officers told him they had done the "blind test" and didn't believe he was blind, he said.

Vanore said he knew of no "blind test" administered by police.

Cantisani claimed he was held in police custody at the airport from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. without food, water or access to his phone or outside communication.

His wife, who had followed him off the plane, said she "was asking a lot of questions" but got no explanation.

After speaking with the officers, Cantisani - who translates several languages for international conferences - said he was asked how much English he spoke and was questioned by a psychiatrist.

About 3 a.m., he was taken to the 18th Police District, where he was detained until late the next evening, he said.

"I was never read my rights. I was put against the wall, told to put [my] hands on the wall, empty [my] pockets and undo my shoelaces," Cantisani said. "Then, I was shoved into a 6-by-7-foot cell and that was it."

Cantisani said that without his cane to help him navigate, he bumped his head, causing it to bleed.

Cantisani said no one believed he was blind until the end of his stay.

"Imagine yourself blindfolded and being knocked around, and I had no idea how long that was going to last," Cantisani said.

After Cantisani appeared before a bail commissioner, he was released sometime after 7:35 p.m. April 5 and driven to the Penn View Hotel in Old City, where he was reunited with his wife.

Cantisani said he remains "beside himself" about the flight procedures, the crew and the officers who handled him.

"It's indescribable . . . I still have nightmares," Cantisani said. "I wake up in the middle of the night thinking I'm in a prison cell."

Cantisani said he does not plan to return to Philadelphia. Peruto said he would represent Cantisani in court Thursday.