Members of a recreational soccer league were removed from a cross-country flight Monday and arrested on suspicion of federal charges, according to authorities and friends of the mens who were detained.
A dozen members of the San Diego Chaldean Soccer League were flying Southwest Airlines to Chicago’s Midway Airport for a tournament, friends tell NBC 7 in San Diego.
A "level one threat" was declared onboard Flight 1522 and prompted pilots to divert the flight and its 117 passengers to Amarillo, Texas, just after 10 p.m., according to court documents.
Southwest Airlines said in a statement that “several passengers traveling together became disorderly” and “refused to obey instructions from the crew.”
Amarillo Police Officers boarded the plane after it touched down at Rick Husband International Airport and removed six passengers described as “unruly” and “disruptive.”
Saiman Hermez, 19; Jonathan Khalid Petras, 20; Ghazwan Asaad Shaba, 21; Essa Solaqa, 20; Khalid Yohana, 19; and Wisam Imad Shaker, 23, were named in a criminal complaint. Jail records listed no attorneys for the six.
Among the allegations against them:
- Refusing to set seat backs and tray tables up before takeoff
- Talking loudly and using profanity
- Lunging forward at a flight attendant
- Calling a flight attendant "racist" and "pig"
- Standing up and becoming increasingly louder
- Attempting to incite other passengers to join in on noncompliant behavior
The federal complaint claims a flight attendant was "in fear for the safety of the crew and passengers" when she asked pilots to divert the aircraft.
Solaqa's sister, Linda, said she was surprised by the allegations.
"[The teammates] are just like my brother," she said. "They love soccer, they go to college, they work, they support their families."
Tiffany Darge was sitting next to the group. She said the men were being rowdy and asked a flight attendant for alcohol during the flight. When the flight attendant denied them, Darge said the group called the woman "racist" and "a pig."
Darge also said the group started making offensive comments to her when she got up to go to the bathroom, and the crew later moved her seat away from the group.
"They called me ugly and a m-f-er and flipping me off," Darge said.
The document describes a female passenger who "began to cry and was shaking" before flight attendants relocated her seat.
According to the criminal complaint, the team members told a flight attendant they could be as loud as they want after she asked them to quiet down. When she said they could not do that, they lunged forward and said they can do whatever they want on the plane.
Each individual detained faces a federal charge of interference with a flight crew, according to Amarillo Police. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. The suspects were booked into the Randall County Jail.
Friends in San Diego County say the group plays with the league for fun and was planning on meeting other soccer players from around the world as part of the 82nd Annual Assyrian Convention beginning Wednesday.
Linda said she doesn't believe their behavior warranted arrests.
"I think it's not fair. I don't think they were any kind of threat to what happened," she told NBC 7.
A league representative told NBC 7, "The way this situation evolved was not representative of our league, our players or our community."
NBC 7 has learned another six teammates continued on to Chicago. The flight left Texas at approximately 1:10 a.m., police said.
One of the teammates, John Ramsey, posted a paragraph to Facebook about the incident, saying in part, "So you make an emergency landing in Dallas and call the FBI on my boys because they were speaking their language... all because they were speaking Chaldean. Not racist at all."
The incident prompted concerns from some passengers following the unscheduled landing.
“Safety is the top priority at Southwest Airlines, and we will always take appropriate actions to ensure the safety and security of our crews and customers,” the airline said. The company did not want to comment on Ramsey's post.