US officials on Thursday defended the deadly shooting of a threatening air passenger as necessary to protect the flying public and the White House said an investigation will determine whether there were lessons to be learned from the incident.
The two federal air marshals involved in the shooting of an American Airlines passenger were put on paid leave while the incident at Miami International Airport was investigated, said air marshal spokesman Dave Adams.
"In any law enforcement shooting, it's not just with the federal air marshals, they have to conduct an internal investigation," Adams said.
"At this time the [marshals] are on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation," he added.
The incident at the airport was the first time a passenger had been shot by air marshals since the enforcement program was beefed up after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked airline attacks.
"This incident demonstrates the critical role that air marshals play in aviation security today," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said.
Officials said the passenger, identified as Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, indicated he was carrying a bomb in his bag as he boarded the plane for a flight to Orlando.
Adams said the two air marshals followed "textbook training" when they shot Alpizar after he ran off the airplane and ignored demands to stop and put down his bag.
Witnesses said Alpizar appeared to be mentally ill. Law enforcement officials said later there was no sign of a bomb.
Alpizar had been agitated before boarding the plane and was singing Go Down Moses as his wife tried to calm him, a fellow passenger said.
"The wife was telling him, `Calm down. Let other people get on the plane. It will be all right,'" Alan Tirpak said on Thursday.
"I thought maybe he's afraid of flying," Tirpak said.
Tirpak took his seat, and Rigoberto Alpizar, 44, and his wife eventually boarded the plane. Then, a few minutes before the plane was to pull away, Alpizar bolted up the aisle and onto the jetway, where two air marshals confronted him.
"He was belligerent. He threatened that he had a bomb in his backpack," said Brian Doyle, spokesman for the US Homeland Security Department.
"The officers clearly identified themselves and yelled at him to `get down, get down.' Instead, he made a move toward the backpack," Doyle said.
Agents are trained to shoot to stop a threat, and the situation on the jetway at Miami International Airport on Wednesday appeared to pose one, said John Amat, a deputy with the US Marshals Service in Miami.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan also said on Thursday that the two air marshals appeared to have acted properly when they shot to kill.
Both air marshals were hired in 2002 from other federal law enforcement agencies and are now on administrative leave, as is routine, Doyle said.