A man who opened an emergency exit door during a flight in South Korea was formally arrested Sunday and faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of violating aviation safety law, authorities said.
During preliminary questioning, the 33-year-old told investigators he felt suffocated and tried to get off the plane quickly, according to police.
Twelve people were slightly injured on Friday after he opened the door of an Asiana Airlines Airbus A321-200, triggering an air explosion inside the cabin and terrifying passengers. Some testified that they suffered severe earaches and saw others scream and cry. A video shared on social networks shows the hair of the passengers being whipped by the air that enters the cabin.
Normally, emergency exit doors cannot be opened mid-flight due to the difference in air pressure inside and outside the aircraft. But during the incident on Friday, the man managed to open the door likely because the plane was flying low as it prepared to land and there was not much difference in pressure, according to Asiana Airlines officials.
The Transport Ministry said the plane was at 700 feet when the man opened the door. The plane was preparing to land in Daegu on a one-hour flight from the southern island of Jeju with 200 people on board. They included teenage athletes heading to a track meet, according to Asiana Airlines.
On Sunday, a Daegu district court approved a warrant to formally arrest the man. Police earlier applied for the arrest warrant, citing the seriousness of the crime and the possibility of the man fleeing, according to Daegu police.
“I wanted to get off the plane early,” the man, whose face was covered by a black hoodie, cap and mask, told reporters in court ahead of his arrest warrant review. “I really feel for the kids,” he said, likely referring to teenage athletes.
Daegu police said they have up to 20 days to investigate the man before determining whether to send him to prosecutors for a possible indictment.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for violating aviation security law that prohibits passengers from tampering with entry doors, emergency exit doors and other equipment on board, according to the Ministry of Transport.
Daegu police said the man, surnamed Lee, told them he was under stress after recently losing a job and wanted to get off the plane soon because he felt suffocated just before landing.
The people who were taken to hospitals were mostly treated for minor problems like breathing difficulties.
Asiana Airlines said in a statement that effective Sunday it stopped selling emergency exit seats on its 174-seat A321-200 and 195-seat A321-200 aircraft as a safety measure. Lee was sitting near the emergency exit, airline officials said.