On Christmas Day, Jay Howard sat next to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Northwest Flight 253.
In his first broadcast interview, which aired on All Things Considered today, Howard shared his memories of the fateful flight — and his fellow passenger — with NPR's Michele Norris.
According to Howard, as smoke filled the plane's cabin, Abdulmutallab "seemed very surprised and shocked at what was happening, like he didn't know what was going to happen."
"The look on his face was of utter shock," Howard said. "What his actions told me on the plane was that he was in over his head, and he didn't exactly know what he was doing would entail."
After spending a semester in Europe, Howard was heading home. Before boarding the Airbus A330 at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, he looked around at his fellow passengers.
"When I was sitting in the waiting room, I noticed that there were people there from all over the world," Howard said. "And I was really amazed by that."
According to Howard, Abdulmutallab was polite. For most of the flight, his behavior was unmemorable.
Abdulmutallab tried to sleep, listening to music on the plane's media player, Howard said. During the meal service, he refused to eat. Abdulmutallab told Howard and the flight attendants that he had an upset stomach.
Several hours into the flight, there was a small explosion, followed by smoke. For a moment, Howard struggled to identify its source.
"I was very curious what had happened, because it sounded very close to me," he said, adding that there was "a repulsive smell."
Abdulmutallab had covered himself with a blanket. Howard asked him about the smoke. There was no reply. He reached over and grabbed the blanket, releasing more fetid smoke. There was almost immediate commotion. Some passengers cried. Others screamed, demanding water and fire extinguishers.
This interview is part of a series called "Going Radical: An NPR News Investigation." In pieces for NPR's All Things Considered and Morning Edition, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton chronicles Abdulmutallab's life.