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More details emerge after off-duty pilot allegedly tried to shut off engines on Alaska Airlines flight

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(PORTLAND, Ore.) — The off-duty pilot accused of trying to crash an Alaska Airlines passenger plane allegedly tried to shut down the engines “by engaging the Engine Fire Handle,” according to the airline.

The fire suppression system on the plane consists of a T-valve handle for each engine, and if those handles are fully deployed, a valve in the wing closes to shut off fuel to the engine, Alaska Airlines said.

The “quick reaction of our crew to reset the T-handles ensured engine power was not lost,” Alaska Airlines said.

At the time of the Sunday incident, off-duty captain Joseph David Emerson was sitting in the flight deck jump seat, which is in the cockpit, Alaska Airlines said.

Emerson engaged with the pilots in “casual conversation” before allegedly trying “to grab and pull two red fire handles that would have activated the plane’s emergency fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines,” prosecutors said.

Emerson allegedly said, “I’m not OK,” and reached up to grab the red fire handles, according to the criminal complaint.

But Emerson was “unable” to pull the red T-handles down all the way and fully activate the engine shutoff because of the pilots “wrestling with Emerson,” the complaint said.

The flight was en route from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco when it diverted to Portland, Oregon, the airline said. Emerson was scheduled to be on a flight crew of a 737 leaving San Francisco, according to a federal official.

From the time Emerson said “I’m not OK” to when he excited the cockpit was about 90 seconds, the complaint said.

Flight attendants put Emerson in wrist restraints and sat him in the back of the plane, prosecutors said.

Emerson allegedly told one flight attendant that “he just got kicked out of the flight deck” and “you need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” the complaint said.

As the plane descended, Emerson allegedly “tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit” but was stopped by a flight attendant, prosecutors said.

Emerson was taken into custody in Portland and faces charges, including 83 counts of attempted murder, according to officials. He is due in court on Tuesday afternoon.

Emerson allegedly told officers he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” the complaint said.

According to the complaint, he allegedly said, “I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up.”

Emerson said he had not slept in 40 hours prior to the incident and allegedly discussed use of psychedelic mushrooms, the complaint said.

Emerson also stated he became depressed about six months ago, according to the complaint.

The FBI is investigating when exactly he allegedly took the mushrooms, according to a source familiar with the investigation. They’re trying to figure out whether this was a psychedelic trip, a mental health crisis or something else, the source said.

There were 80 passengers and four crew members on the flight, according to Alaska.

“We didn’t know anything was happening until the flight attendant got on the loudspeaker and made an announcement that there was an emergency situation and the plane needed to land immediately,” passenger Aubrey Gavello told ABC News. “… About 15 minutes later, she got back on and said that there was a medical emergency.”

Gavello said she heard a flight attendant tell the suspect, “We’re going to be fine, it’s OK, we’ll get you off the plane.”

“After we did land and the gentleman was escorted off, the flight attendant got back on the speaker and said, plain and simple, ‘He had a mental breakdown. We needed to get him off the plane immediately,"” Gavello said.

Alaska said Emerson joined the carrier as a Horizon First Officer in 2001. He then left the airline in 2012 to join Virgin America as a pilot. Emerson returned to Alaska in 2016 when the carrier acquired Virgin America and he became a Captain with Alaska in 2019, the airline said.

Alaska said during Emerson’s time with the carrier he “completed his mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.”

The event is being investigated by law enforcement, the airline said. The FBI said it “can assure the traveling public there is no continuing threat related to this incident.”

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement to carriers that the incident is “not connected in any way shape or form to current world events.”

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