Two air marshals aboard an American Airlines plane waiting at a departure gate at Miami’s airport were confronted with the following situation that lasted only seconds:

A youngish male bolts from his seat in the rear of the plane and sprints toward the cockpit, yelling that he has a bomb. He is followed by a woman screaming in English and Spanish. The two marshals pursue him into the jetway, where, if he really does have a bomb, he is only steps from a concourse likely crowded with travelers. As he reached into a backpack, the marshals fired, killing Rigoberto Alpizar, 44.

“This was a textbook scenario and they acted instinctively based on their training,” said a spokesman for the air marshals.

Instinct and training, yes, but this scenario wasn’t exactly in the textbook. There was no bomb. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Alpizar had worked in a hardware store where co-workers described him as quiet and reserved. Alpizar was in torment from mental illness, his wife said, because he had gone off his medication. Her hysterical efforts to explain this probably only added to the confusion.

This is the first time air marshals have used their weapons since their ranks were greatly beefed up following 9/11, which speaks well of their training and restraint generally. And surely the marshals will study this incident for whatever lessons it has to teach. It is hard to say that the two marshals should have acted other than the way they did. But at the end of those chaotic few seconds, a mentally ill man lay dead for conduct he could not control. There must be a better way.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)