Guyanese, Muntaz Alli was on board the Emirates flight from Dubai which was quarantined at New York’s JFK International Airport on Wednesday after over 100 passengers complained of feeling unwell during the 14 hour trip. Eleven people were eventually taken to a New York City hospital where preliminary test results found influenza.
Alli, 30, was making his way from Saudi Arabia to visit his cousin.
He told USA TODAY that he sensed something was wrong when he boarded the aircraft for his connecting flight from Dubai to New York.
“Quite a few passengers were showing symptoms of sickness. Coughing,” he said. “Even the guy next to me, in the economy, lower (level), he was coughing and I knew something was wrong with him.”
He said the flight departed as scheduled, however. It wasn’t until about half an hour before they started their descent to JFK that the pilot announced there were “a few ill people on board,” Alli recalled.
“It wasn’t alarming on the flight until half an hour before we started to descend, because we didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “Before that, it was a normal flight.”
Passengers were told a medical team would come to the aircraft and no one could leave. That’s when things “became a little chaotic,” Alli said.
“(The crew) had a rough time to control people because usually when the aircraft comes to a stop, everybody gets up to get their overhead bags,” he said.
After landing, Alli said the flight crew was dismissed, leaving passengers unattended for about a half hour until medical teams boarded to perform exams, taking the sick people off board first.
“I saw a bunch of police cars and ambulances start to surround us. We had no idea what was going on until we saw from the televisions in the plane that we were on CNN,” he said. “And that’s when we knew how serious this was.”
Forms were then passed out to gather passengers’ medical information before they could exit the plane. The forms came from the Centers for Disease Control and were titled “Passenger Locator Information Page.”
Alli says passengers were on the plane for about 3 and a half hours before anyone was allowed out.
“I was worried (about getting sick). I became worried when they started to share that form to everyone and they’re like, ‘You’re not getting off the plane until you fill that out and until you’re being tested,'” he said.
Alli’s theory? The sickness may have been brought on board by flu-infested passengers coming from Saudi Arabia.
Not only has there been increased traffic in the area due to the Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that ended in late August, but there have also been reports of flu outbreaks.
Alli, who was originally traveling from Saudi Arabia before getting on the flight in Dubai, said he saw other passengers were doing the same, including the coughing man who was next to him.
“There were Somalis on the flight,” he said. “They all came from Saudi Arabia I think too, they were at the Hajj.”
He added, “I’m guessing the others were probably from the same group… So it was them who probably came with a flu or whatever it was and it spread.”
Although food was served during the flight, Alli does not believe that’s what caused the illness.
“I didn’t see anybody vomit, but you don’t know if they went to the washroom,” he said.