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Chicagoans help subdue unruly passenger on detoured United flight

The photo was taken from the end of the flight that was diverted to Detroit after passengers subdued an unruly passenger. Some in the photo helped stop the ruckus by sitting on the woman; left to right are Chris Hildreth, Bob Fitzsimmons, flight attendant Jodi Watkins, Fletcher Oliver and Sal, a passenger who didn't want his last name used. | Photo provided to the Chicago Sun-Times

Albert Cho was dozing off in his seat on a Thursday night flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to O’Hare when he was wakened by shouts from a passenger who was scuffling with a flight attendant in the aisle.

The woman was screaming something about her own necklace, then snatched a necklace off the stewardess’s neck, then ripped another off a nearby passenger. Then the agitated woman began making her way toward the rear of the plane, where Cho was seated.

“It was really horrifying,” said New York native Cho. “She was clearly having some kind of mental breakdown.”

Before the woman — whom the FBI identified as Breanna Nicole Farquharson — got much farther down the aisle, a trio of passengers wrestled her to the floor, and essentially sat on her for an hour while the flight was detoured to Detroit’s Metro Airport.

Old Town resident Bob Fitzsimmons was one of four passengers — including Hinsdale native Chris Hildreth, Itasca resident Fletcher Oliver and a New Yorker named Sal — who leapt into action.

“We started yelling for something to tie her up with,” Fitzsimmons said. “I was thinking there would be an air marshal on the flight, or they would have zip ties or duct tape or something.”

Instead, they managed to subdue Farquharson with Cho’s belt, a woman’s scarf and seat belt-extenders, and Fitzsimmons and Sal sitting over her. Farquharson continued babbling for the duration of the flight and didn’t answer when Fitzsimmons asked her name or tried to chat.

“We basically decided we would just sit like that for the rest of the flight,” Fitzsimmons said. “We probably only had an hour left in the air.”

That itinerary got longer when the plane was diverted to Detroit, where Farquharson was taken off the plane by airport police. Fitzsimmons said he and others were questioned by the FBI during their layover, and the flight was delayed only about an hour by the ordeal.

A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Detroit bureau said Farquharson was charged with interference with flight crew members.

Farquharson, 22, did not make a scheduled appearance in federal court Friday, and remained in federal custody, FBI spokeswoman Jill Washburn said.

“Those guys were heroes,” Cho said. “Brave, and at the same time, very gentle with her as well.”

Fitzsimmons said he has exchanged numbers with his fellow amateur air marshals.

“We actually had a long time to talk, while we were sitting on her,” he said. “There was a lot of camaraderie.”