Canadian who helped subdue shoe bomber has visa ordeal

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

Kwame James is big. Basketball big. Big enough to turn heads when he walks down the street. He is a member of a community of players operating outside the scope of the NBA, traveling the world in search of games.

Born in Canada, James found them first in Indiana, recruited briefly by Bob Knight and then playing four years at the University of Evansville.

Then he chased them overseas in Argentina and France. There were cameo appearances in the NBA developmental league and the CBA and this season with the Brooklyn Kings of the USBL. It's a typical itinerary for a player on the basketball bubble.

What's not typical is how he got tangled up in immigration red tape, especially since he happened to be a hero in the war on terrorism.

If you recognize his name, it's because James helped subdue shoe bomber Richard Reid on a jet 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, three months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

James thought that might help his immigration situation, but when Reid pleaded guilty to eight charges including attempted murder in October, the U.S. attorney's office in Boston lost interest in James and his expiring visitor's visa.

''He was not in position to work or to remain here,'' said immigration attorney Michael Wildes, a city councilman in Engelwood, N.J., who called James' plight to the attention of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Joe Crowley. Together, they found solutions.

''First, we applied for a P1 visa that allowed him to work for the USBL team,'' Wildes said. ''That can be renewed annually. It's a stopgap.''

Wildes promises to seek a long-term remedy for James.

''For our government not to want to help in the first place shows me we have a way to go,'' he said. ''We ought to be sending a strong message that we will take under our wing victims and heroes and do what is right for them.''

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department, said there had been a misunderstanding.

''He was offered advanced parole, a means by the district office and U.S. attorney's office to help in the trial and stay legally,'' Bentley said. ''He was told what he would have to do. He had an adjustment of status. With a P1 visa, there is no point of contention between the immigration service and Mr. James.''

The plane episode is etched in James' mind.

He was dozing on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami, heading home to Trinidad and Tobago for Christmas vacation, when a flight attendant approached and said, ''We need your help.''

There was a split-second of hesitation. ''Then,'' James said, ''I looked at her eyes and I could tell this was serious.''

Ten rows behind him, Reid was battling with passengers and attendants after he had tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes. James and others subdued the Al-Qaida follower, tying him up in belts and headset wires. Then the 6-foot-8 basketball player was left to guard him.

''It was like running into a brick wall,'' James said. ''The adrenaline stepped up. You think, 'Is this real?' It became a movie at that point.''

For the next three hours, as the flight detoured toward Boston, James and another passenger, an Italian boxer, took turns holding Reid down by his pony tail. There was apprehension throughout. There had been multiple hijackers on the Sept. 11 flights. Was Reid alone?

James' mind began to race.

''I asked him if he was trying to blow up the plane and he smirked and said, 'You'll see.' That was another brick wall.

''I was scared for my life. I thought, 'Did I tell my mother I love her when we talked? Did I accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish?'''

James looked out the window at one point and saw F-15 fighter jets flying beside the plane.

''It definitely changed my life and the lives of everyone on that flight who knew what was going on,'' he said. ''Before, I was a bit sheltered. I was well-traveled Canada, the United States, Trinidad ... Now, I was thrown in the middle of a possible terrorist attack.''

James came away with a new appreciation for life.

''I am just happy to be alive,'' he said. ''There is a lot of bad in the world but there is a ton of good, too.''

He presses on with basketball, backed by a degree in international marketing and some experience in reggae and hip-hop music production. He plays whistle-stop basketball because he loves the game. And the shoe bomber episode has left him with a permanent nickname.

''My teammates call me 'Plane,''' he said. ''It's not because how high I jump.''

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