A teenager strapping Jewish religious ritual prayer boxes to his head and arm caused a scare on a plane from New York to Kentucky this morning, prompting the pilot to land in Philadelphia, officials said.
Authorities determined there was no threat and the 17-year-old boy and his 16-year-old sister, who live in White Plains, N.Y., were not held.
Flight 3079, a U.S. Airways Express operated by Chautauaqa Airlines, was en route from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Louisville about 8:15 a.m. when a flight attendant saw the youth putting on his tefillin, police said.
Tefillin are leather boxes containing scriptures with leather straps that observant Jewish men wear on their foreheads and arm and fingers during obligatory weekday morning prayers.
Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan said the flight attendant became concerned and alerted the pilot.
"It's something they never seen before," Sullivan said.
"This is something most Americans probably have never seen before," FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said later.
In a statement, Republic Airlines, Chautauqua's parent company, said the crew "tried to discuss the issue with the passenger" but "they did not receive a clear response."
Taking no chances, the pilot decided to make an unscheduled landing in Philadelphia and reported a man with a device with "wires" on the plane, Sullivan said.
The wires turned out to be the leather straps, officials said.
Police were notified about 8:23 a.m. and federal and city law enforcement vehicles surrounded the plane after it touched down.
Authorities took the jet to a remote area and removed the boy and his sister from the plane. The pair explained what the boy was doing with the tefillin, Sullivan said.
He said passengers were surprised to see law enforcement officials board the plane but they were not upset.
Officials decided by 8:45 a.m. that there was no threat, Sullivan said.
A Transportation Safety Administration statement called the unscheduled landing a "disruptive passenger" incident and made no mention of circumstances described by law enforcement officials.
U.S. Airways said 15 passengers were on the plane. No one took action against the youth and the plane landed without incident. Passengers continuing to Louisville were booked on other flights.
The teenager and his sister boarded a US Airways flight for Louisville that left around 1 p.m. The slightly-built teens arrived at the gate accompanied by a US Airways employee.
Both looked shaken as they waited to board, and the sister's eyes were still red from crying. They quietly declined to comment, looking downward. The US Airways employee asked that they not be bothered, saying, "These kids have been through a lot today."
In its statement, Republic Airlines said: "While we always regret any inconvenience to our passengers, safety and security must remain our top priority. In this case, making an unplanned stop in Philadelphia was determined to be in the best interest of our customers and our crew."
In an interview with WLKY TV in Louisville, a woman whose name was not given but who was described as the children's grandmother took the incident in stride.
"They're young kids," she said. "They were pretty shook up.
"They're religious kids - they say their morning prayers," the grandmother said. "They've traveled before and put this on and there's never any problem."
"So it was a very exciting morning for them."
"They'll be able to write an essay on how I spent my time going to see grandma," she said.
Known as phylacteries in English, teffilin contain a brief, hand-lettered prayer, the Shema, that serves as a reminder that there is only one God, and that he led the Jews out of Egypt into Israel. It reads: "Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."
The ancient tradition of wearing teffilin is based on injunctions found in passages within both Exodus and Deuteronomy, two books of the Torah.
Although there are slight variations in the phrasing, the injunction adjures the faithful to "bind them [the words of the Shema] as a sign on your arm, and they shall be as a memorial between your eyes."
Teffilin are not worn on the Sabbath or certain of the High Holy Days.