Flint airport terror attack: 5 years later
Ret. Lt. Jeff Neville survived the attack and takes a look back at that terrifying day
FLINT, Mich. (WNEM) - Tuesday marks five years since the terror attack at Flint Bishop International Airport grabbed headlines worldwide.
Lt. Jeff Neville was the target of the unprovoked assault on June 21, 2017.
He sat down with WNEM-TV5 to explain how that brief, violent encounter changed his outlook on life and to offer hope to others forced to leave a job they love through no fault of their own.
When asked how he’s remained positive and why he’s able to take the incident in stride, he said it’s just the way he is.
“I guess I just tend to be more lighthearted in my life and deal with things that way,” Neville said. “The fact that the attack happened to me is way in the back of my mind. I’m not going to say that I don’t think about it every day because I do. There’s aspects of it I think about but it doesn’t bring me down.”
Convicted terrorist Amor Ftouhi literally brought Neville down when he approached him from behind inside of the airport terminal. Neville was on duty just as he had been throughout his 17-year career with the airport police department.
“I never understood until the trial how fast he ran. I thought he walked fast. No he ran in a full tilt,” Neville said. “That’s when he came up. He first struck me and it knocked me forward.”
Ftouhi stabbed him repeatedly with a knife with a 12-inch blade that he purchased in Michigan after multiple failed attempts to buy a gun here.
“The first slash was up here,” Neville said while reaching toward the back of his neck.
The knife just barely missed a critical part of his spine.
“The doctor said that the knife actually struck one of my top 2 vertebrae and bounced off. He said those are the hardest vertebrae you’ve got are the top 2,” Neville said. “So I mean, tell me somebody wasn’t watching over me that day.”
Ftouhi would go over Neville’s protective vest and stick the blade in the right side of his neck.
“I didn’t think he was cutting me. I thought he was actually punching me, you know, and just beating me bad,” Neville said.
During the interview in his Grand Blanc office where he does real estate, Neville revisited some of the stories in the wake of the attack. Some of it he remembers clearly while other parts of it have been filled in by others over time.
“For example several months ago I had a chance to talk to Rich Krul who was the maintenance man who pulled him off of me, and Rich told me that I told him to grab his ear or grab his head -- keep his head from moving because I learned early on that if you control a person’s head you control the rest of their body,” Neville said.
Meanwhile, the scene outside of the airport was hectic. There was a swarm of emergency vehicles and law enforcement officers.
Travelers were waiting to know what is going on and when their flights would resume.
The heart pounding and bloody encounter happened in seconds. A handful of heroes, including Richard Krul, Police Chief Chris Miller, shoe shiner Joe Garza, security manager Dar Allen and Fire Lt. Dan Owen all had a hand in helping Neville in some way. Some of them were later honored along with Neville.
Neville said he had no thought of shooting the Canadian and Tunisian dual citizen who had entered the U.S. less than one week before the attack.
“I was seriously injured. I couldn’t even get my handcuffs out of the case because of the blood on my hands. Good luck pulling a gun besides the fact that Rich is laying underneath him and when you fire a weapon you’re supposed to think about your backdrop. You have to consider that,” he said. “My consideration was only that I wanted to stop the attack and control the guy, and the system dealt with him.”
Ftouhi was convicted of committing an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries and other offenses by a federal jury in November 2018. He was sentenced to life in prison in April 2019 at age 51.
“I would’ve been disappointed frankly if he didn’t get life because he’s a really dangerous man,” Neville said in April 2019 immediately after the sentencing.
Evidence at trial showed Ftouhi entered the U.S. on a professed “mission” as a “soldier of Allah” to kill American police officers.
Law enforcement said Ftouhi’s plan was to steal Neville’s gun and shoot other officers.
“I wasn’t going to quit until I couldn’t go. If I was unconscious, that’s the only way I was quitting and then I was planning to fall on him and smother him under my girth,” Neville said with laughter.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. He was hospitalized and released five days and 50 stitches later for the gash on his neck.
Neville has come a long way physically, overcoming most of the nerve damage and able to feel again where he was stabbed.
“I was just so happy to be alive because I realize how close I came to not being alive and I was just joyful,” Neville said. “I’m still joyful. Even with PTSD I was joyful.”
Neville briefly returned to police work at the airport before realizing he couldn’t do it anymore as he battled post traumatic stress disorder. He underwent therapy in which he learned a lot about himself personally and professionally over a 30-plus year in law enforcement.
“You compartmentalize and you put things into different sections, different parts of your life...and I called it a backpack,” Neville explained. “He didn’t just cut my neck, he cut open the backpack, and out spilled all this mess of things that I shoved into the backpack, so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Then all of a sudden I had to deal with everything at once.”
But the PTSD has improved greatly over the years.
“I’m not going to say it’s [PTSD] gone, but I don’t think it’s weighed as heavy on me,” Neville said. “I guess if there’s a side effect now related to the incident, it’s probably that my startle reflex is probably intensified. I know that when I watch a movie when something sudden happens I’m out of the seat (laughter).”
Now he wants to convey hope to other officers and anyone making a career transition after he was forced to leave a career he truly loved.
“I don’t want people to think that they’re stuck in one job. If you want to be a police officer forever, that’s great, but if you come to a point where you can’t, it’s not the end of the world,” Neville said. “Concentrate on being happy, and if you’re happy, success will follow.”
We asked Flint Bishop Airport about this anniversary and airport safety now that some time has passed.
The airport released this statement to TV5:
“Flint Bishop Airport appreciates the public outreach on the 5th Anniversary of a horrible attack that almost took the life of an on-duty police officer, Lt. Jeff Neville. Neville has since retired after a long and successful career at Flint Bishop, but he remains a part of our airport family. June 21, 2017 was a very hard day for the entire airport community and it undoubtedly changed Neville’s life. We are forever grateful for the response from Neville’s fellow FNT Public Safety team members and others who helped save his life. We will also never forget the outpouring of support from our local Public Safety partners, community leaders, passengers, and from complete strangers. The safety and security of our passengers, employees and tenants have always been our top priorities. Since the attack, the airport has strengthened its resolve to serve and protect our airport community even further. We enhanced elements of our security that includes upgrades to equipment and monitoring protocols. In an effort to keep our security protocols strong, we cannot reveal specifics. However, we are steadfast in our commitment to making Flint Bishop the safest airport in the country.”
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