TSA: Pepper spray from 1.5 oz canister caused mid-air scare on Kahului-bound flight

Published: Aug. 31, 2018 at 2:55 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 1, 2018 at 1:32 PM HST
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Emergency responders met the plane at Kahului Airport. (Image: Kevin Olson)
Emergency responders met the plane at Kahului Airport. (Image: Kevin Olson)
Flight attendants asked people to leave their seats and move to the back of the cabin after an...
Flight attendants asked people to leave their seats and move to the back of the cabin after an irritant was detected on an Oakland-Kahului flight. (Image: Nicholas Andrade)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An apparent accidental release of pepper spray mid-way through a flight from Oakland to Kahului on Friday sent a number of passengers into coughing fits and forced those in the front section of the cabin to leave their seats for more than half an hour, Hawaiian Airlines and passengers said.

Hawaiian Airlines said 12 passengers and three flight attendants were treated for respiratory issues after the plane landed at Kahului Airport at 10:37 a.m. They have all been released.

Maui police and the TSA are investigating the incident, and the passenger who brought the pepper spray on board could face civil penalties of up to $13,000. Pepper spray is not allowed to be carried on planes, though it is permitted in checked baggage.

Video taken shortly after the plane landed in Kahului shows a firefighter speaking to passengers, asking anyone who needs medical assistance to leave their seats first and seeking to reassure them.

"We know what the cause is," the firefighters says. "Everybody is OK."

In a statement, TSA officials said the spray was released from a container capable of holding 1.5 ounces of liquid. Upon landing, the small personal container was confiscated.

A passenger told Hawaii News Now that the incident happened about three hours into the flight when "all of a sudden" multiple people in first and premium classes started coughing.

Passenger Nicholas Andrade said people were putting wet paper towels and clothing over their mouths, and that a baby threw up.

"Everyone was afraid," Andrade said.

Flight attendants ordered people in the front of the cabin to move to the back of the plane and stand there for about 40 minutes while the air cleared, he said. Passengers were then told they could return to their seats, but Andrade said the irritant still hadn't dissipated and that he started to have trouble breathing again.

Another passenger, Kevin Olson, said the incident was "scary."

"First class and premium section passengers all started to cough and the flight attendants could barely see or talk," Olson said.

The plane, Hawaiian Flight 23, had 256 passengers and 10 crew members on board.

Hawaiian Airlines said an emergency was declared after the pepper spray was released "out of an abundance of caution."

"During the cruise portion of the flight ... passengers in the forward section of the Boeing 767 experienced an unpleasant odor," Hawaiian Airlines said. "The odor was determined to have come from a can of pepper spray brought on board illegally by a passenger."

In a twist, the pepper spray release wasn't the only incident associated with the flight.

The flight was delayed about 90 minutes in Oakland after a teenager inadvertently shared a photo "depicting a fake crime scene featuring a child-sized mannequin" with other passengers waiting at the gate. The teenager had the photo for a school science project.

"In order to minimize the inconvenience to our guests, the teenager and the family were re-booked on a later flight while the incident was investigated," Hawaiian Airlines said, in a statement.

Oakland authorities investigated the incident and found no evidence of wrongdoing, The Mercury News said.

This story will be updated. 

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