NASA Diver Insists Tale Of Porn-Watching Muslim Hijackers Is True, Despite Discrepancies

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A man who claims he witnessed a “dry run” by Muslim hijackers on a plane at Atlanta’s airport last month told TPMmuckraker this morning he is standing by his story, despite several holes in the tale and the carrier’s claim he was not even on the plane.

In an email account of his experience that went national on right-wing blogs last week, Tedd Petruna describes a group of 11 Muslim men “in full attire” who created a disturbance on a Nov. 17 AirTran flight on the runway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.In Petruna’s telling, the men fanned out through the plane, and one of the men called a companion in the back of the plane, “talking in Arabic very loudly and very aggressively.” He ignored a flight attendant’s request to put away his phone before takeoff.

Petruna, who works as a diver at a NASA lab in Houston, says two of the Muslim men began “to show footage of a porno they had taped the night before, and were very loud about it.” It’s unclear what he means by “taped the night before,” and how Petruna would know what the men had been doing the previous night. But he describes porn viewing as an activity Muslims would be permitted to engage in only before Jihad. When a flight attendant objected to their use of an electronic device, she was told to “shut up infidel dog!”

It’s at this point that Petruna emerges as the self-styled Todd Beamer figure of AirTran Flight 297. He writes:

This is where I had had enough! I got up and started to the back where I heard a voice behind me from another Texan twice my size say “I got your back.” 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!” As I “led” him around me to take his seat, the fellow Texan grabbed him by the back of his neck and his waist and headed out with him. I then grabbed the 2nd man and said, “You WILL do the same!”

Three TSA officers and four cops burst into the plane, and the 11 men were escorted away, according to Petrunua. But a little while later, to Petruna’s disbelief, the 11 were let back aboard, and the entire crew and Petruna walked off the plane in protest, he says.

But after outlets like WorldNetDaily, a blog at Glenn Beck’s Project 9.12 site, and columnist Debbie Schlussel picked up the story and declared Petruna an American hero, a few flaws began to emerge.

Most significantly, AirTran says its flight manifests show Petruna had missed a connection and that he was never actually on board Flight 297.

And according to KHOU in Houston, Petruna admitted to the TV station that “his description of the men’s attire was wrong, and [that] he didn’t personally see anyone watching porn.” TSA told the station its officers never boarded the plane, and they consider the matter an airline customer service issue.

So what actually happened? All the details aren’t known, but it appears that the captain of Flight 297 returned the plane to the gate after a passenger didn’t end a cell phone conversation, according to an AP story that ran the day after the flight. AirTran, in a thorough debunking of Petruna’s tale, says there were never any threatening behavior, and that no law enforcement was on the plane. Another passenger on the flight told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the man was talking in Spanish, not Arabic, and the episode seemed to be the result of a language barrier.

Reached at the Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab this morning, Petruna told TPMmuckraker that despite AirTran’s assertion, he was on the flight. He wouldn’t say much, though, because “I’m in the middle of a lawsuit about this right now.” We’re not sure whether a lawsuit has actually been filed or what it would be about, though Petruna told Schlussel, the right-wing columnist, that he was mulling a defamation suit.

“The whole e-mail went out accidentally; it was not supposed to go nationwide,” Petruna told TPMmuckraker. “It was supposed to go out to family and friends, and the next thing I know it’s a firestorm.”

Gene Hackemack, one of the friends who has apparently been distributing the email, introduced it with his opinion that “the muslims are all getting very brave now, since they have one of their own in the white house……read Tedd’s story below.”

There’s one other wrinkle to the story: Petruna sent the e-mail out from an account marked “Petruna, Tedd J. (JSC-DX12)[RAYTHEON TECHNICAL SERVICES COMPANY].” Raytheon partners with NASA on the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where Petruna is a diver. And Petruna told us he works for Raytheon as well as NASA.

But Raytheon spokesman Jon Kasle tells TPMmuckraker, “This individual is not a Raytheon employee.” Kasle says he’s not sure why Raytheon’s name is on Petruna’s e-mail account, and declined to comment on whether the company is looking into the matter.

NASA and AirTran did not immediately respond to a requests for comment.

Late Update: The FAA tells us its probe of the Nov. 17 incident found no violations of safety rules. And AirTran says it hasn’t heard of any lawsuit.

Late 12/8/09 Update: Flight 297 passenger says Tedd Petruna is “living in a fantasy world.”

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