A man who died while being deported to Angola was being heavily restrained by security guards and had complained of breathing problems before he collapsed, a witness has told Guardian.
Jimmy Mubenga lost consciousness while the British Airways flight was on the runway at Heathrow on Tuesday night. The commercial flight was cancelled and Mubenga was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Kevin Wallis, a passenger on the aircraft, said he had been sitting across the aisle from Mubenga and watched as three security guards restrained him with what he believed to be excessive force.
Wallis said he heard Mubenga complain: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” for at least 10 minutes before he lost consciousness, and later observed that handcuffs had been used in the restraint.
Last night, police confirmed that they were investigating the death of Mubenga, who they said was “deported from the UK under escort by three civilian security guards”.
“Inquiries continue to establish the full circumstances of the incident,” a Scotland Yard spokesman said. “There have been no arrests.”
The guards worked for G4S, a private security firm contracted to oversee Home Office deportations. In a statement, G4S said a man “became unwell” on a flight while being deported.
The wording was echoed by the Home Office, which said Mubenga had “taken ill” – but Wallis, who described having the clearest view of any passenger on the aircraft, said that account was “absolute rubbish”.
The 58-year-old, an oil engineer from Redcar, said he became aware a man was in distress as soon as he boarded BA flight 77, bound for Luanda, at around 8pm.
Speaking on the phone from Soyo, in the northern province of Angola, he described how he heard Mubenga “moaning and groaning” as though in pain.
His leather jacket had been taken off, and some passengers had been moved away.
He said two security guards were sitting either side of Mubenga and “holding him down”.
A third guard was occasionally holding him down from the passenger seat immediately in front, he said. All three were sitting on the final row at the rear of the BA flight.
He said Mubenga had been trying to get up, saying: “I don’t want to go”, adding: “They must have been forcing him down, because I didn’t realise until afterwards that he was handcuffed.
“They must have had him doubled over and they were both on either side putting pressure on him, so when he got a bit stronger or tried to lift up, the guy on the other seat [in front] leant over and pushed him down again.”
Wallis described receiving a call from his wife, who could hear the incident over the phone. “She said: ‘That sounds really nasty – what’s going on?’ I said: ‘They’re going to [deport] a bloke, and he didn’t want to go.'”
He added: “One of [the security guards] – I think it was the one in front – said: ‘He’ll be alright once we get him in the air – he just doesn’t want to go … once we get him up in the air he’ll be alright.”
Mubenga’s wife, Makenda Kambana, said she spoke to him as he sat on the plane waiting to be deported.
“He was so sad, he was saying: ‘I don’t know what I am going to do, I don’t know what I am going to do,'” she said. “Then he said: “OK, just hang up and I will call you back” … but he never did call back … I never heard from him again.”
She said she had spoken to him earlier in the day, when he appeared to be calm and was getting on with his guards.
“He was friendly with them. They did not put him in handcuffs because he was good to them. I heard them asking him: ‘How are the children’,” she said.
Mubenga and his wife lived in Ilford, Essex, with their five children, aged between 16 years and seven months.
Kambana said the family had been devastated by his death. “I feel so sad. I don’t know, I was thinking if I was there to help him,” she said. “The children just can’t stop crying, and I don’t know what to say to them.”
Mubenga’s complaints about his breathing difficulties continued for “10 minutes at least” before he lost consciousness, Wallis said.
Asked whether Mubenga he been consistently complaining about his breathing during those ten minutes, he replied: “Yes, he was saying: ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.'”
He said Mubenga was not making other complaints but he could hear him heaving as though being sick, adding: “I think they were scared of him … they put so much pressure on him because he looked a big lad. The three security guards were big blokes as well.”
When it was clear Mubenga had lost consciousness, he was laid down in the aisle. The captain was alerted and police and paramedics called.
Wallis said he believed the security guards notified the crew. “He just went quiet for a good while, then they checked his pulse and they must have thought it was very, very low,” he said. “They [the guards] brought him up then, and I saw his head and everything. They checked his neck pulse and his wrist pulse. That is when they looked a bit worried.”
He added: “The paramedics tried to resuscitate him on the floor beside me. They chased the security guards and said: ‘Get out of the way, we don’t want to know you’. The security guards were trying to have a look to see what was going on, but the paramedic – a young lady, she was – said: ‘Will you get out of the way?'”
Several passengers, including Wallis, were interviewed by detectives before they were allowed to board the flight 24 hours later. It was then Wallis discovered that Mubenga had died.
He added: “Knowing that he was being handcuffed, I would say they put far too much [pressure on Mubenga]. He must have been in horrible pain and pressure.”
A second witness has also come forward to tell the Guardian he heard Mubenga say repeatedly: “They’re going to kill me.” He estimated that the three security guards were on top of Mubenga for 45 minutes.
The 29-year-old engineer, who asked to be referred to only as Ben, was sitting around 10 rows in front of Mubenga on the same flight.
He also became aware a passenger was in distress after he boarded the plane and saw a commotion. He said he saw one of three security guards remove a handcuff from his pocket to restrain Mubenga’s arms.
“There were three guys trying to hold him,” he said. “This led to them pushing everyone further up the plane, so we were all pushed into first class.”
When allowed back into the main cabin, he said the three guards were leaning on top of Mubenga.
“You could hear the guy screaming at the back of the plane. He was saying: ‘They are going to kill me.’ That’s what he repeatedly said,” he added.
“He was saying that right from when I got on the plane. He just kept repeating that all the way through.”
The engineer added that it was not clear whether Mubenga was referring to the guards or his political adversaries in Angola, and most of the passengers were not concerned.
“He was muffled because they were holding him down,” he added. “No one was that alarmed by what he was saying. He just then went quiet. We were about take off and there was an announcement saying that someone on the plane was very ill.”
He said Mubenga “had been slumped down on his seat because they were pressing down on him. You only ever saw the top of his head a little bit or you heard him muffle[d] because they were on top of him.”
In 2006, Mubenga was convicted of actual bodily harm after a brawl in a nightclub and given a two-year sentence.