File photo by John Spink, jspink@ajc.com
Photo: John Spink
Photo: John Spink

AirTran ‘hero' wasn't on plane, airline says

He was not on the plane, AirTran Airways says.

"After conducting additional research into this situation, we have verified, according to flight manifests [legally binding documents] that the individual that allegedly created a first-hand account of events on-board AirTran Airways Flight 297, a Theodore Petruna, was never actually on-board the flight," AirTran said in a statement, which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to obtain.

An e-mail from a Tedd Petruna, in which he told the AJC via a Facebook message Friday was intended only for friends and family, made the rounds online this week after a friend apparently forwarded it to others. In a matter of days, Petruna's account appeared in chat rooms and blogs and on conspiracy theorists' Web sites.

The AJC was forwarded the e-mail dozens of times this week, as readers saw Petruna's tale and noticed conflicting information between it and earlier news reports of the flight delay Nov. 17. Some readers simply asked the AJC to further investigate the matter.

But others who forwarded the message accused the AJC of participating in a politically correct cover-up.

The intriguing story made for intense fodder among bloggers.

Petruna's story appeared in a blog on the Web site for The Project 9.12, a group started by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. A Canadian news site picked up the story. Dallas Morning News airline columnist Terry Maxon made it the subject of his blog for a second time this week on Friday. And snopes.com, a Web site that sniffs out rumors to decipher between fact and fiction, followed the story.

In its continued investigation into the incident, the AJC made several attempts to speak to Petruna about the incident. He has declined throughout the week to respond to repeated e-mail and phone attempts by the AJC to talk to him. That last request was made Saturday.

Additionally, AJC interviews with people on the plane, airline officials and federal agencies did not corroborate his story.

According to AirTran, shortly after 4:40 p.m. on Nov. 17, Flight 297 bound for Houston taxied toward the runway of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. But before the Boeing 717 made it to the runway, the pilot decided to return the plane to the gate. A flight attendant had apparently asked a male passenger twice to put away a cellphone or camera, but the man had not done so. The flight attendant then took the device from the man.

At the gate, the passenger -- who didn't speak English -- and a companion were asked to leave the plane, which they did without incident, the airline reported.

When it was determined the problem was caused by a language barrier, AirTran and Transportation Security Administration officials allowed the man, and 12 others traveling with him, to reboard, and the flight left for Houston a little more than two hours later. Later, officials said the entire incident was the result of a miscommunication.

Nancy Deveikis was seated directly behind the unidentified man on the flight. She believes he spoke Spanish. Deveikis said the man was looking at pictures on a camera and did not understand the flight attendant's requests to turn the device off.

Petruna's account was drastically different. It was forwarded to others by A. Gene Hackemack, who vouched for him as a former NASA colleague. Petruna claimed he witnessed an incident involving Middle Eastern passengers on the flight and attempted to stop the incident from escalating.

"I grabbed the man who had been on the phone by the arm and said ‘you will go sit down or you will be thrown from this plane,' " Petruna wrote. Continuing, Petruna said 11 men dressed in "full attire" speaking Arabic got on the plane together.

Hackemack, when reached by telephone earlier this week at his Texas home, stood by the story and gave the AJC a home phone number for Petruna. Hackemack did not respond to a request for comment Friday by the AJC.

"Thank God for people like Tedd Petruna," wrote Hackemack wrote in the e-mail he forwarded.

Keith Robinson didn't make it to the gate in time to board Flight 297 for its initial attempt to depart. Robinson, a Texas chaplain, said he watched as upset crew members and passengers poured back into the terminal after the incident on the plane.

"You could tell something was going on," Robinson told the AJC. Robinson said a passenger getting off the plane asked him whether he intended to get on the plane and fly to Houston.

"I'm a chaplain, that's where I'm supposed to be," Robinson said he told the man.

Robinson said the flight to Houston was a quiet one, giving him time to write down his account of what he had seen.

"The feeling that I have from what I observed is there was intentional intimidation," Robinson said. "It was almost an ethnic bullying situation."

Robinson recounted what he witnessed for reporters at KHOU-TV in Houston on Thursday. Petruna, however, told the station that he could not appear on camera.

In an e-mail to the AJC Saturday evening, Robinson said whether or not Petruna was on the flight, the incident aboard the plane caused fear among the flight's crew members.

A replacement flight crew was brought on board, but that is not uncommon, AirTran said. A delay such as this one could quickly affect scheduling for later flights, according to AirTran spokesman Christopher White.

"We have reserve crews ready to jump in at a moments notice," White said late Saturday.

Friday afternoon, AirTran responded to Petruna's allegations in a point-by-point response to his e-mail, posted on the airline's internal Web site and made available to the media.

"There are no reports of any passenger standing up in a threatening manner," according to the AirTran statement. "At no time was there any physical altercation between passengers."

Although AirTran previously had declined to release the flight manifest, that changed Friday evening. In addition to discounting Petruna's story, the airline responded to the amount of attention it believed the circulated e-mail was gaining, White said.

There was no way Petruna could have seen what he described on Flight 297, AirTran said in a statement. Petruna departed from Akron-Canton, Ohio, on AirTran Flight 205 on Nov. 17, officials said. He was supposed to connect to Flight 297 for Houston, but he missed his first flight out of Ohio. And therefore, he missed the connecting flight.

AirTran said Flight 297 first left its gate at 4:40 p.m., "a full 26 minutes before Flight 205 arrived at the gate in Atlanta, making this flight connection impossible."

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