Federal, state and city agencies mobilized Wednesday after a commercial airliner from the Middle East landed at Kennedy airport with initially alarming reports of widespread illness among those on board.
But by early evening, the mystery that surrounded Emirates Flight 203 had resolved into a far lesser drama, as public health officials announced that 19 people on board had taken ill with what probably was the flu.
Ten of them — seven crew members and three passengers — were taken to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, where they remained Wednesday night in stable condition. Nine others who felt sick declined medical attention.
The rest of the 521 people on board were cleared at the airport to leave after being checked for symptoms by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials said.
“Given the symptoms that we are seeing in the patients, and given the histories that they present, it looks like this is probably influenza,” New York City acting Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said at a 5:30 p.m. news conference.
She added, “But again, until we have our final results late tonight we won’t be able to give a final determination of what the underlying cause is of this illness.” Later city officials said they may not have the final results until Thursday morning.
Nonetheless, from the moment that the giant airliner from Dubai landed at 9:10 a.m., concern was high about a potentially major public health event. For a short time, the metropolitan area was faced with the spectre of a communicable disease or a terrorist incident brought into this country through New York's front door and one of the nation's major transportation hubs.
Initial public health agency reports of a plane making an emergency medical landing with 106 sick people spurred a mobilization of federal, state and city agencies, including the CDC, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the NYPD and FDNY, as well as state and local health agencies.
Twitter buzzed with feeds from the passengers. Vanilla Ice, the rapper and TV reality show personality, who was on the flight, tweeted from the plane.
“This is crazy,” he said. “Apparently there is over 100 people sick on the bottom floor, so happy I’m up top” of the double-decker plane.
When the plane landed at JFK, the FDNY had ambulances waiting. Crews taxied the Airbus A380 to the tarmac outside Terminal 4, where it was placed under quarantine.
CDC medical personnel boarded the aircraft and began evaluating the people on board, said agency spokesman Benjamin Haynes. Images of passengers exiting the plane and having their temperatures taken flooded the media, even as dozens of families waited nervously inside Terminal Four.
The mood on board the double-decker airplane, which had been in the air traveling 7,000 miles for some 14 hours, grew tense during the flight, passengers said. Some people on board were coughing and vomiting. Some had a fever. There was little passengers could do, trapped in a plane flying across the ocean.
“It was like a plane from hell,” passenger Zeph Shamba, said in an interview later. “We were just told a couple of passengers weren’t feeling well so ... we are going to be quarantined, so we were all worried,” said Shamba, who was visiting from Zimbabwe.
Manoj Tolani of Jakarta, Indonesia, had caught the flight in Dubai to travel to a conference in New York City. He was in business class, which is on the top level. Economy is on the lower level.
“We were told there was about 100 passengers in the economy section who fell ill. Their symptoms were vomiting and fever,” he said.
When the plane landed, the crew asked passengers to remain in their seats until the CDC came on board, Tolani said.
Passenger Erin Sykes of Battery Park said it was obvious before the plane took off that people were coughing and feeling ill.
Sykes said she asked for a mask immediately after getting onboard and tried to cover her face with a blanket. When people got ill, she said passengers were initially calm, but by the end tensions began to grow.
“People got very frustrated,” Sykes said, who was returning from a yoga and surf retreat.
Worried and eager for some answers, Mohammad Ghafari of Queens waited anxiously outside the terminal with flowers for his best friend, Abu Hasandat.
“He’s seen a lot of people coughing, but he’s perfectly OK,” Ghafari said.
Passenger Larry Coben tweeted images from the plane and just after 11 a.m., he tweeted: “Happy to report that I am through customs and on my way home. Others as well.”
Officials said they asked passengers to fill out forms asking for their contact information.
Eric Phillips, a mayoral spokesman, said earlier Wednesday that “it appears some of the ill passengers came from Mecca before getting on in Dubai.” He said the flight occurred two weeks after the end of the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
Barbot said it’s not uncommon for viruses like the flu to spread at any type of large gathering.
“It’s not out of the question that individuals attending a large event could have contracted influenza — there is influenza in the Arabian Peninsula — and then transmitted it on this flight,” said Barbot.
Barbot took the time to credit the cooperative response between city, state and federal agencies and said there shouldn’t be any cause for concern regarding flights from Dubai.
“At this point there isn’t anything that leads us to believe that we will see the same thing in other flights,” she said. “But I think that we’ve prove, proved, proving that if and when it does occur that the city is ready in collaboration with our federal and state partners.”
Emirates airline issued a statement saying: “Our crew and on-ground staff extended our full cooperation to the authorities during the onboard screenings, and the aircraft has now been handed back to Emirates.
The airline added, “We apologize to our customers for any inconvenience caused. The safety and well-being of our customers and crew is always our top priority.”
With John Asbury, Vincent Barone, Robert Brodsky, Matthew Chayes, Lisa Colangelo, Janelle Griffith, Chau Lam and Delthia Ricks