How Much Force Is Too Much When Trying To Restrain A Passenger?

Filed Under: Security/TSA

Yesterday I wrote about the situation that unfolded on Thursday’s flight DL129 from Seattle to Beijing. Someone seated in business class (who was the son of an employee) clearly lost it and was on something, and tried to open the emergency exit. While passengers sometimes go crazy, they can typically be detained with reasonable force.

That wasn’t the case here, however. The passenger punched several others (including flight attendants and fellow passengers), tried to throw dessert wine bottles at people, etc.

What’s interesting is that the flight attendants tried to smash two bottles of wine over his head. One apparently broke over his head, though he didn’t seem to be impacted, and responded with “do you know who I am?” (well, now we all do).

I think what’s clear based on this story is that the guy was on something serious, where he couldn’t feel pain. Anyone else would likely be debilitated if a wine bottle was smashed over their head, while that wasn’t the case for this guy.

In the comments section of yesterday’s post, it’s interesting how several people questioned whether it was appropriate to use as much force against him as they did. For example, Bryan T said the following:

Serious question. If someone tries to do something stupid like that, does it really give you free reign to do whatever you want to the guy?

I know they want to subdue him, but that gives someone Carte Blanche to smash a wine bottle over him?

He obviously can’t open the door due to pressurization, I question the need to try and kill him.

Greg said the following:

The wine bottles by the FA are melodramatic. Flight crew should have known the door wasn’t an issue.

Let him fail then get him when he backs away.

They’re valid questions, though let me say first and foremost that I think the crew and passengers deserve to be commended for their actions, because this was clearly a highly unusual situation.

However, I do think the above points are worth addressing. The passenger didn’t pose an immediate threat to the aircraft itself (which is different than posing a threat to the people on the plane):

  • You can’t open the emergency exit at a high altitude, so no matter how hard he tried, he wouldn’t have been able to open it until the plane descended to a lower altitude
  • Some mentioned he could have entered the cockpit, though nowadays there are reinforced cockpit doors, so there’s no way he could have gotten in the cockpit

What that doesn’t address is how incredibly violent and out of it he was. He was punching people, throwing bottles at people, and clearly wasn’t in a position to be reasoned with. The absolute top priority was to get the zip ties on him and have him sufficiently restrained so that he couldn’t do any more damage.

But where should the line be drawn in terms of what kind of action can be taken against someone like that? Personally I think there isn’t a limit. It’s one thing if someone is just intoxicated, being belligerent, etc. However, it’s completely different when someone is having what can only be described as an out of body, drug induced (or something) reaction. This sounds like something out of a horror movie.

It’s true that he didn’t pose an immediate threat to the aircraft as such. That’s to say that as long as he was restrained prior to the plane getting to a lower altitude, there was no risk that he could have opened an exit or entered the cockpit. However, he absolutely did put other passengers’ lives at risk with his violence.

When someone can’t be reasoned with and is having an out of body experience, I do think it gives the crew and passengers carte blanche to use whatever force necessary to stop him, even if it had been deadly. Fortunately that could be avoided, but I don’t think any of the passengers or crew crossed the line in trying to stop this guy. I’d rather see this guy seriously injured than anyone else on the plane.

What do you guys think?

  1. I think the FBI Complaint mentioned that he was able to rotate the door mechanism halfway despite being at altitude. That seems serious enough to justify the measures used.

  2. He had to be restrained by whatever means necessary. If not he would have continued with his behavior which could have resulted in injuries to other

  3. In point 11 in the photos John Ostrower posted (link to Tweet in Ben’s other article, it says the guy managed to get the door lever to a 90 degree position (i.e, disarm). While the door can’t typically be opened at altitude, if the plane got to a low enough level, it sounds likely that he could’ve opened it and caused other damage like door getting sucked into engine, damaging wing etc.

    I agree that there shouldn’t be a limit on how much force is too much. There are hundreds of people on a pressurized tube with the crazy guy – crew and passengers need to do everything they can to prevent the situation going way out of control.

  4. Under U.S. criminal law, there is a proportionality principle. The use of force by a private citizen is only justified to the extent reasonably necessary to defend against an imminent threat. So the extent of the force you’re allowed to use is very fact-specific. If someone tries to slap you, you’re not entitled to take out a machine gun and mow them down.

    But I think what the passengers and flight attendants did to this guy is unquestionably appropriate. You’re not required to use the bare minimum force. The use of force just has to be reasonable given the nature of the threat. Here, I think it’s fair to say that his throwing things at other passengers constituted an imminent threat of serious bodily harm to other passengers — so everyone on the plane was entitled to subdue him, including by means that created a risk that he would suffer serious bodily harm.

    I think it’s a closer question whether deadly force would be permissible in this scenario, but if it came to that, I think it probably would be–at least assuming that the person who used the deadly force believed that the passenger’s interference with the exit door created a risk to the airplane. I think most juries would conclude that it was “reasonable” to fear that, by interfering with the exit door, the man could have caused death or grievous bodily injury to other passengers on the plane. In fact, the people who read this blog probably all know that he can’t really do anything by playing with the exit door at a high altitude — but when you act in self-defense, you’re not judged with the benefit of hindsight. You’re judged based on whether your actions were reasonable in light of what you knew at the time. If someone mistakenly believed that the errant passenger could open the exit door, and thus endanger the lives of others, they would be justified in using deadly force — even though, in fact, the exit doors don’t open at high altitude so the risk to others was less than it appeared.

    Obviously I think everyone recognizes that deadly force is an absolute last resort, particularly in a scenario like this. But I do think the passengers were entitled to use any nondeadly force the considered appropriate to subdue this passenger.

  5. Using wine bottles to the head is not an acceptable use of force. FAs are trained to deal with these situations. It seems those operating this flight, skipped class, big time.
    They are also not law enforcement people, hence they cannot claim protection as such in court. I’m more concerned that a flight attendant reacts with intent to murder when a passengers go crazy. That is a question that should be answered, but will likely not.

  6. @Hasse seriously intent to murder. Please learn what legal terms actually mean before using them. If someone is punching someone in the face and throwing a wine bottle at them they are within their rights to fight the person back. Your acting like a lawyer who missed the first day of (well all of) law school.

  7. Regardless if the door was not able to be open someone crazy enough to try is a danger to all. Why wait to find out he has a knife on him or some other weapon. If a wine bottle was needed use it. If more aggressive actions were needed go for it.

  8. A passenger such as this literally puts hundreds of other lives at risk. There is no amount of force that is too great.

  9. @Hasse, did you even bother to read the full criminal complaint? The man punched a flight attendant in the face repeatedly (in the eye, specifically), continued to struggle and fight off all attempts to stop him, and the man also hit an assisting passenger over the head with a wine bottle when the passenger tried to assist the flight attendants. If you think that how the flight attendants handled this incident is not appropriate, especially considering the man himself first initiated the wine-bottle bashing, according to the official complaint, then you are are delusional. It’s easy to Monday morning quarter back and incident like this, but if you were placed in this situation yourself with the potential lives of hundreds of other passengers at risk, I would like to think that you would also use whatever force necessary to stop the man.

    When someone is acting irrationally like this, the flight attendants didn’t exactly have ample time to sit back and analyze the situation from a scientific perspective, obtain altitude readings, estimate pressure differentials, etc. Even if this topic is glossed over briefly during their initial flight attendant training, do you honestly expect everyone to remember 100% of this, especially regarding “boring” stuff like pressure differentials? Do you remember 100% of the things that you were taught in driver’s ed when you were 16 years old? Do you remember exactly how many feet you must park from a fire hydrant? Do you remember how many feet of space you must leave when parking near a sidewalk? Give me a break… these flight attendants reacted in the best way possible and put themselves in danger in order to guarantee the safety of the other hundreds of passengers. Your attempt to defend this criminal is astonishing and offensive.

  10. As much force as necessary to keep all other passengers safe, PERIOD! Even the slightest attempt to open the door is too much of a threat IMHO, well done crew members!!!

  11. Only 20-20 hindsight allows someone to say he was only trying to open the door and would have failed, then one can deal calmly with him. In real time, you don’t know what is going to do. Hudek clearly was a threat to his own safety and to others. He had already committed felony assault, showed zero indications of de-escalating his behavior, and was arguably escalating. Secure the threat.

    As a 32 year airline pilot, I would have made this call 110 times out 100.

  12. If this guy killed a flight attendant or an innocent passenger people would not even be arguing how much force should have been used to subdue him.
    If this guy in his state randomly went down an aisle and killed or seriously injured a child people would not be discussing how much force should have been used to subdue him.
    What matters is the highly potential for this guy to do so was there.
    That fact that a normal person could/would reasonably believe that serious bodily injury or death to themselves or someone else might occur as a result of this guys actions then there is no question deadly force could be used until the person stopped the harmful activity, was subdued and or killed.

  13. @[email protected], this is about authoritarian people which passengers have to obey 100% of the time in-flight. Th,ey are professional trained by their company (and TSA) how to subdue unruly passangers. This training includes how to hit the windpipe without killing. And yes, I do expect them to remember their training. If they cannot remember their training, how can I trust them en e.g. an evac situation? This combined with common knowledge that blunt objects to the head does in most cases kill, yes, I do consider the FA to have intent to murder the passenger. Or if it makes you fell better, I can use the term intent to kill.

    And to you Tom, you asshole! : when did I defend the passenger?? I have not made any comments relating to his behavior , only to that of the FA

  14. Doesn’t sound like they tried to de-escalate the situation. If you’re not threatened, get involved, and escalate the situation, you deserve to get hurt. Let the guy try to open the door and tire himself out. Instead, these clowns freak out and start crashing wine bottles, inducing the guy to attack back.
    Reminds me of those two guys who got killed in Oregon, who responded to a man who was just mouthing off against two women. Rather than let it play out, these guys escalated the situation and got themselves fatally stabbed.

  15. @Hasse, Yes, I am the asshole. Give me a break. Your arguments are completely indefensible. And for the record, flight attendants didn’t even start receiving the training you mention until very recently, and it’s highly likely that the ones on this flight have not yet received this training, since only a small number have been trained so far. You’re a complete idiot and I’m done with this conversation. Feel free to sign off now and resume your protesting of the G20 summit in Hamburg.

  16. The passengers are entitled to use any means to stop Dudek, even deadly force with intention to kill. Reasons:
    1. FA (which primarily exist for passenger’s safety) cannot control the situation and asked help from passenger;
    2. FA already tried to subdue Hudek by hitting his head with at least 2 bottles of wine, at least 1 was broken on impact, yet it wasn’t taking any effect.

    In short: the authority requested a help against somebody who is causing damage with strength above normal/common people. Its kill or be killed situation.

  17. this may sound crazy, but what happened if he was ” possessed by the devil”?/? i do not know any other explanation, cocaine or other non hallugenic drugs i do not think would make him act this way, what about if he was possessed like in the movies?

  18. @Hasse – you are an absolute idiot and have no idea what you are talking about. You obviously have very poor writing and analytical skills (shocker).

  19. Having both received and taught Security classes while working for 3 different airlines. I can say they all have the same mantra, “defend the flight deck at all costs”. You do what it takes to prevent the hostile from becoming an extreme threat to the aircraft as a whole. You have to quickly judge the persons intentions and determine how much of a threat the person is. Are they making verbal threats? Then you will divert the flight if the threat is about destroying the aircraft. Have they approached the flight deck and attempted entry or physically assaulted a pax or crew member. Then you are going to defend yourself and subdue the threat. If that means it takes a fire extinguisher to the head to over power them…guess what’s coming.

  20. Quite frankly, I don’t want this person unrestrained with me (as a passenger) in the cabin any more than I want him unrestrained on the flight deck. So long as the goal is to restrain the person to the point where they are no longer a threat to themselves or other passengers and not simply one of retribution, I find “any means necessary” to be appropriate. I’m shocked this is even a question.

  21. Guy punches flight attendant and multiple passengers, is beligerent and unresponsive, and is attempting to open the cockpit and plane doors.

    Is it not proportional that other passengers also attempt to subdue him by force (or for a flight attendant being pummeled, use wine bottles)?

  22. Agree that they were right to use any force needed to stop him.

    Somehow I doubt the story with the two wine bottles, though. I don’t think it is possible that a human being is hit with two full glass bottles over the head, so hard that the bottles break, and just the guy just carries on.

    Also on the mugshot, the guy has no apparent injuries on the head. If a full bottle breaks on your head, your skin will burst open, there will be bleeding, cuts etc. This guy is in perfect shape. Doesn’t make sense.

  23. The first duty of a flight crew member is to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew for the duration of the flight. Period. In this case, the passenger attempted to disable a flight crew member by repeated attacks to the face. In other words, he tried to compromise the safety of the flight iteself. Any means available to stop him was justified. People are questioning whether hitting the guy over the head with a bottle was too much. Well, it didn’t work so it obviously wasn’t too much. People on some types of drugs are capable of demonstrating amazing strength and high tolerance to pain. When they are attacking someone on a plane–particularly someone responsible for the safety of the flight–you can’t just wait around for them to sober up. You must use force that is sufficient to overcome the effects of the drugs and/or alcohol.

  24. UK lawyer here. I would have hit him with the nearest implement to hand if I were trying to fend him off – and I would have helped any FA trying to do the same thing. I wouldn’t have worried about a jury at 30000 feet. I wouldn’t have worried much about one once back on the ground for that matter either, given the circumstances.

  25. All force necessary until he is fully restrained. If the result of that force is debilitating injury or death, so be it. He did not follow orders of the flight attendant and was putting people on the plane in danger. Honestly, he’s probably lucky he’s still alive. I wonder what would have happened if there was an armed air marshal on the flight? Would they have used their weapon?

  26. Anyone arguing that use of force was too heavy is being too politically correct. They needed to subdue this passenger and stop his attacks. Bravo to those who stepped up to defend the FAs and get this animal tied up.

  27. @Claus Somehow “I doubt the story with the two wine bottles, though. I don’t think it is possible that a human being is hit with two full glass bottles over the head, so hard that the bottles break, and just the guy just carries on. ”

    I’ve had nearly the same thing happen, smashed two full beer bottles over a crazy dudes head(a former friend) and all that happened was he laughed. Even with blood pouring down his face. Dude needed 40 stitches on his scalp.

  28. @Hasse you have to be joking. They are not trained to take down a twenty something drugged out person. Heck it would have taken several officer to subdue him on ground level. You act as though they were trained by US special forces. These were probably 50 year old females (I know I am being a little sexist sorry) trying to restrain him.

  29. Remind me never to travel with Hasse. If something goes down, you can be sure he will be in the back asking people to please stop yelling and fighting even though some maniac wants to kill everyone on the plane.

  30. @Jack
    The air marshall would’ve shot, missed, damage the aircraft, lost cabin’s pressure, pilot decides to lower altitude, and then the door would’ve opened.

    If FA that exist primarily for passenger’s safety couldn’t do his/her job properly, what do you think a man with gun can do? Shoot first, aim later. That’s the american way!

  31. @Jack: you have the point. I though marshals are on duty on these flights…

    Getting back to the original question: airplane doors can be opened by design (that is why they are called doors and not walls). There might be a safety gadget that disables opening it – but what if it goes wrong? Do you really want to try your luck? Do you also test your airbag in your car, or you rather prevent collisions?
    Further to that: the tragedy of the South African flight 295 (operated by a 747-200 combi aircraft in 1980). There was smoke and fire onboard and as per the procedures doors were opened to get rid of the smoke – en route to Mauritius. In the air, over the ocean.

    I might have exaggerated, but I hope you get my point.

  32. I was going to write a longer narrative associated to this post, however @John nailed most of my points. Well done.

    It should be noted though, that a civilian or FA would likely not have a full understanding of a law enforcement/air marshal use of force model. Therefore, they are likely to be afforded greater latitude in the level of force used on this individual, which in turn, would likely prevent any type of excessive force investigation.

    Furthermore, an individual is warranted to use a reasonably higher level of force to stop the commission of the offence. In this case, if there was an honest believe that as a result of the door being opened a loss of life would take place, a lethal level of force could be articulated. As John mentioned you are judged upon your knowledge at the time. In my experience, most air travelers do not have the knowledge and understanding of aviation that the population of this blog does.

  33. Taking a lunatic down by any means necessary is always appropriate. That goes for @Hasse too.

  34. @Jesse
    Makes the typical points of a lawyer who was not on the plane.
    And it’s not clear even this points are correct.

    And as others have pointed out, I wouldn’t risk my life on the strenght of the springs of the door mechanism which at some point (altitude) will allow the door to be opened.

    For everyone else saying undue force was used. Simple question: If your loved one was injured or worse, on this flight, and the FA’s had NOT done EVERYTHING they could have to subdue this guy. How would you feel?
    You’d be the first to sue!

    Well done Flight Attendants.

    Oon another note, why is BC constantly filled with NR pax?

  35. @hasse. FAs “are professional trained by their company (and TSA) how to subdue unruly passangers. This training includes how to hit the windpipe without killing. ” Yea right. If someone is standing absolutely still and does not move, the flight attendant is a black belt in Karate, and strikes the windpipe perfectly, it might take passenger down. Then it again, it might not. It hurts to be hit in the windpipe and it would most likely enrage the passenger further. Further, I think it unlikely that even Bruce Lee could reliably hit a moving passenger in the windpipe. Next you will be telling me that the FAs are taught the Vulcan nerve pinch.

  36. They should have kicked him in the package or taken out one of his knees. That will end it quickly.

    Great job by the FAs. We should be thankful to the passengers who helped out.

    Use of force never looks pretty. It is a dynamic situation with little time at hand to come up with a strategy. And you have to deal those uninvolved and inexperienced people questioning your actions the day after.

    Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.

  37. Lol at the asshat talking sh*t about FAMs. As someone with skin in the game, I can assure you U.S. air marshals are not the reckless cowboys you’ve described.

    As for trippin’ dude, he is lucky that his only opposition came in the form of bottle-wielding flight attendants. He’d be worse for wear if the professionals had been on this flight.

  38. To me: any force that doesnt permannently paralyze or kill is advisable. If you can restrain him without killing him or resorting to wheelchairing him, yes good. But if it isnt possible,killing him wouldnt be out of line.

  39. @Hasse – let’s see you sing another tune when you feel your life is in danger at 30,000 feet. It’s so easy to see the “grey” when you are not involved in the situation.

  40. Most people don’t know anything about fighting, and have never been in a real fight in their lives. Whatever training the FAs would have had to subdue someone, would be worthless in a situation like this. To get good at fighting, you need to train some sort of sport/martial art that has live sparing, like boxing, muay thai, wresting, Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, etc, and train a lot. Like, seriously, a lot. As far as I’m concerned, once you try to open the door or become a threat to other passengers, anything goes until you are no longer a threat. This stuff isn’t a game, and you don’t get to complain that people were mean to you while you were trying to bring down the airplane.

  41. @hasse
    “common knowledge that blunt objects to the head does in most cases kill”
    You’re joking right? I’ve been a paramedic for 13 years and can say with absolute certainty that you are just dead wrong! Blunt objects to the head will, in most cases, cause a head injury (duh). I’ve been hit over the head with a bottle trying to restrain a combative patient. And, last time I checked, it didn’t kill me. I’ve even had patients shot in the head with large caliber handguns that lived through the incident with little to no neurological deficits. So how about you use some common sense before acting like you know what you’re talking about.

  42. @Danny. “Great job by the FAs. We should be thankful to the passengers who helped out.” Absolutely agreed!!!

    Kicking in the junk is a good technique. However, if the passenger is drugged, crazy, or drunk, he might not respond, if he is a street fighter, he has already been kicked there before and has learned to ignore the pain, and finally, if he sees it coming, he will move just a little, so it will miss enough not to take him out. Taking out the knees is also a good idea. However, it requires a strong powerful side kick to the knee. And even if
    such a kick is landed, I personally don’t think the kick would take out the knee of pro-linebacker or anyone who spent years in a prison building up. If you do one of these things and it does not work, the crazed passenger could easily come after you and give you permanent injuries.

    My point is: Anyone like Hasse that thinks that flight attendants who are not professional martial artists can incapacitate a crazed passenger because they had a week long course from the TSA is being absurd. Further, most of the flight attendants that I have seen do not look strong enough to win a fight against a crazy passenger. I think arming up against the passenger is perfectly reasonable. I fully support them picking up a wine bottle and using it as a weapon.

  43. The comments on that other post were absolutely absurd. People always have a tendency to say “Harumph, this should’ve been done differently!” no matter the outcome. I’d challenge any of those other commenters to say how they would have felt if this guy was on their flight and not on some nebulous flight somewhere over Canada that they read about on the Internet.

    Hypothetically, let’s say the plane did descend to a lower altitude and the door did fly open. Perhaps it caused the plane to crash land or perhaps it just sucked a few people out and the pilot was able to descend fast enough to prevent further damage. You’d see the exact opposite from the same exact crowd: “Harumph! They should’ve done whatever necessary to stop this guy! Don’t they have wine bottles onboard or any other number of items that could be used as weapons against such an obvious threat?!”

  44. As someone who has worked for years in law enforcement and who used to transport inmates on commercial flights I will say the following. When someone is high on drugs especially the likes of LSD, Meth etc they have extra human strength and sometimes cannot even be subdued by a taser, so in my opinion these folks did what they felt was needed to subdue this individual who was clearly out of control and effected by substances. Do not judge unless you have been in that same situation.

  45. You have all missed another factor as to whether a wine bottle should have been broken over his head. What was the quality of the wine being used to subdue the perp? This happened in first class and so the wine may have been worth preserving to celebrate the take down rather than being used as a weapon. Finally, always remember that white is best for such occasions as red can not only stain but also be confused with blood. Salut!

  46. Deadly force would not have been out of line, but the PR fallout would have been disastrous. Though personally I would not be upset if they had used deadly force to stop him.

  47. Migos just got kicked off of Delta flight. Apparently the rapper who is named Takeoff (lmfao) refused to follow FA instructions and the plane returned to the gate . Lucky please write a story about this

  48. In situations like this, you “cancel the guy’s ticket”. You can be nice to him later while you are sitting on him.

  49. @hasse Simple answer coming from a judge: absolute nonsense.
    This guy was a threat for the safety of passengers and the plane (he was already able to unlock the door) so there was no limit on the forces allowed to stop him. This guy seems to have activated an unnormal power, so every force would be reasonable.

  50. Now here’s an interesting question:
    What if a passenger was verbally harassing the crew and passengers, non-stop, calmly from his seat (i.e. not actually posing any physical harm/danger).

    How do you deal with that?

  51. @James: correct, you are right – i was wrong with the pressure thing.
    (What confused me is that the airplane doors on many types that I fly as a passenger swing outward. But you are right, as they have to be moved inward first – no chance of opening that.)

  52. The minute the passenger struck the crew all necessary force was authorized. A blow to the head can be deadly in the wrong circumstances and the passenger took the first swing.

    Police officers sometimes have trouble subduing a drugged out individual. Expecting a cabit crew to calmly use a couple karate chops they leared in a half day course is unreasonable.

    I commend the crew and passengers who assisted in restraining the out of control passenger so the plane could safely land.

  53. @Morris
    Only verbal? Put on a headphone, watch movie or listen to music, and give that person a big smile.

  54. They did what they had to do! Flight attendants are trained to defend the flight deck any means necessary! Punching a flight attendant is a felony and they all did what they needed to do to subdue him! And yes at that altitude most doors won’t open however some can be cracked enough to depressurize the plane which in fact could be a huge risk!!!!!

  55. In hindsight if someone wasn’t carrying a gun on 9/11 and had they shot rhe terrorists point blank when they started the hijacking, we could have some sort of saved history. So no, I’m ok with the amount of force that was needed and was used.

  56. Yea its nice to have this calm and civilized discussion in a comfortable and safe environment after the fact.
    Then there are the other people who are stuck on the plane with a drugged out maniac trying to open the doors and kill everyone (not that he was able to). I can relate to everyone on that plane and I dont think too much force was used – hacking the guy down with the emergency hatchet would have been too much force.

  57. Whatever means necessary. When someone is assaulting people, it’s not the time to think how some commenters on a travel blog may feel about the situation.

  58. @Hasse, remember 9/11? At that time Flight Attendants were taught to “reason” with passengers and try their best not to use force. I wonder if force was used to subdue the terrorist if any of those planes would not have crashed. We are in a time and era that people will fight back. Flight Attendants are first responders. If I am on a flight and I see some “wacko” trying to do any harm to the crew, aircraft (that could endanger my life as well of those around me) and mechanics of the plane, it is on! Remember, there was a Southwest flight a year or so after 9/11 were the passengers and crew use force on a passenger to the point that they ‘killed’ him and the court found all of them innocent and had use ‘reasonable’ force on the crazy passenger. Therefore, the precedent has been set. We all have the right to use reasonable force to protect ourselves and you bet I will use anything I have to protect my life.

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