Joy. Fear. Kwame James felt a swirl of emotions last Thursday when he woke--in
a location he doesn't want to disclose--to the news of the thwarted terrorist
plot to blow up several transatlantic airliners. "Mostly I've just been
rattled," he says with a long sigh. "Food hasn't tasted as good. I
haven't laughed as loud. It just all came flooding back."
On Dec. 22, 2001,
James was on a plane from Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport to Miami. Then a
23-year-old center for AS Bondy 93, a pro basketball team in France, James was
heading home to Trinidad for the holidays. When you're 6'8" and don't have
the means to upgrade from coach class, international flights are brutal. James
tried to outwit his body by staying up all night before he flew, so he could
sleep the whole journey. The flight, American Airlines number 63, was packed,
filled with families and screaming kids, headed to a warm clime for Christmas.
Still, after folding his frame into his seat like so much origami, James fell
asleep, no problem.
Three hours into
the flight, he was roused by a frantic flight attendant. "We need your help
in the back!" she said. James was a deep sleeper, but the terror etched on
the woman's face brought him instantly awake. He rushed to row 29 to find
several passengers struggling with that same strange-looking, straggly-haired
man James had watched breeze through the security line a few hours earlier. A
flight attendant was gripping her hand to stanch blood spurting from a bite
wound. The stench of sulfur filled the air. A thickset Italian passenger had
the man, at this point screaming incomprehensibly in Arabic, in a headlock.
At the University
of Evansville, where James led the Missouri Valley Conference in field goal
percentage as a senior, his coach had chided him for shying from contact. Now
here James was, helping to wrestle a flailing madman on an airplane. His
adrenaline, already surging far more than it ever had on a basketball court,
spiked when a flight attendant warned, "Careful, he's got a bomb in his
shoe." James looked down, saw a small Koran under the seat, and fixed his
gaze on the wires poking out from the tongue of a black boot the man was
wearing. Before the passengers piled on, the man, later identified as Richard
C. Reid, had tried six times without success to ignite the bomb in his boot
with a match.
The bomb, as it
turned out, was powerful enough to have blown the 767 out of the sky.
With no air
marshals on board to help, a clutch of passengers and flight attendants finally
subdued Reid, who was 6'4", weighed more than 200 pounds and, as James puts
it, "was possessed, clearly willing to die." Using belts and headphone
cords, the passengers tied Reid up, and two doctors who were on board injected
him with a sedative. The largest man on the plane, James was asked by the
captain to stand sentry over Reid--later universally christened the Shoe
Bomber--for the rest of the flight, gripping him by his greasy ponytail, poised
to act if he started to struggle again.
Within hours of
the plane's landing, the details spewed forth. Reid had been a petty criminal
in Britain before discovering radical Islam. A self-professed member of
al-Qaeda, he had attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and was,
according to an e-mail he'd sent, upset he hadn't been asked to help out with
the Sept. 11 attacks. Reid's intent, he later admitted without reservation, was
to blow up the plane, killing the 197 people on board and disrupting air
travel. And he'd packed enough of the plastic explosive into his hollowed-out
boot heels to do just that. Fortunately, Reid had a lousy set of matches.
("The fact is, if he had brought a lighter onto the plane instead, I
wouldn't be here telling you this story," James says. "That will give
me the chills for the rest of my life.")
Reid would plead
guilty to the charges against him that included attempted use of a weapon of
mass destruction. He is currently serving a life sentence at a supermax prison
in Colorado. While there are no bars or cells or spools of concertina wire on
the perimeter, James too has been in a prison of sorts. Initially declining
American Airlines' offer for free counseling--"A mistake," he now
says--he entered the emotional equivalent of Chapter 11. Apprehensively, he
returned to France and left the team soon thereafter, unable to sleep, let
alone concentrate on basketball. He returned to America to play in the USBL but
gave up his NBA ambitions in 2003. Today, nearly five years after the flight,
he's still reluctant to reveal his whereabouts, still fearful of
story was starting to break right. He married his longtime girlfriend, Jill,
last year and began the process of becoming an American citizen. He's done some
motivational speaking and personal training while he's applied for jobs as a
pharmaceutical sales rep. Then last week his peace was broken. "It was like
a reminder that my life will never quite get back to normal," he says.
"But I guess that puts me in pretty much the same boat as everyone
For more on Kwame James from L. Jon Wertheim go to SI.com/kwame.