Delta Flight 253 was approaching Detroit when a 23-year-old Nigerian man tried to blow up the plane, according to national security officials. The man says he was acting on behalf of Al-Qaeda, but officials will not confirm that.
"It sounded like a firecracker in a pillowcase," said Peter Smith, a traveler from the Netherlands. "First there was a pop, and then (there) was smoke."
A fast acting passenger may have saved the day.
According to Smith, a passenger sitting opposite the man climbed over people, went across the aisle and tried to restrain the man. Syed Jafri, another passenger, said he saw a glow and smelled smoke. Then, he said, "a young man behind me jumped on him."
"Next thing you know, there was a lot of panic," said Jafri. Smith said the heroic passenger appeared to have been burned.
One official said the device was a blend of powder and liquid that failed to detonate. Law enforcement officials identified the suspect in Friday's attempted attack as Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. He was taken into custody when the plane landed and was whisked away into the airport.
Another law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the case, said Mutallab's name had surfaced earlier on at least one U.S. intelligence database, but not to the extent that he was placed on a watch list or a no-fly list.
Officials say he is being questioned, and treated for burns in an Ann Arbor, Mich., hospital. At least one other passenger was injured. For everyone on board it was a harrowing experience.
"It was scary, it was a loud firecracker that went off and there was a fire in the plane for a few seconds," said passenger Rachelle Keepman. "It was very scary for everyone."
Flight 253 began in Nigeria and went through Amsterdam en route to Detroit, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the ranking GOP member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
The incident was reminiscent of Richard Reid, who tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives hidden in his shoes, but was subdued by other passengers. Reid is serving a life sentence.
Meanwhile, the White House says President Obama was notified, and was monitoring the situation from Hawaii where he is vacationing with his family.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.