The world’s bloodiest hijack — 59 dead, 32 wounded — began Saturday afternoon, November 23, shortly after Egyptair Flight 648 took off uneventfully from Athens, bound for Cairo.
It ended 24 hours later in an inferno of fire and machinegun bullets on the airport of this tiny, rockbound island nation in the mid-Mediterranean between Sicily, Tunisia and Libya.
I arrived here a day after the harrowing events. Through interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, Maltese officials and foreign diplomats, I was able to piece together an account of the ordeal which, a week later, still shocks the world and has raised many serious questions that remain unanswered.
One of the survivors I spoke to was Tamar Artzi, 24, a trim, attractive brunette from Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev. She and her travelling companion, Nitzan Mendelson, 23, of Kibbutz Hulata in Galilee, were the only Israelis among the nearly 100 passengers and crew of 14 nationalities aboard the Egyptian Boeing 737 when it left Athens for the two-hour flight to Cairo.
I could not speak to Nitzan Mendelson. She was shot point blank in the back of her head by a hijacker and shoved off the plane. Doctors at St. Lukes Hospital here have declared her clinically dead with a bullet in her brain. She remains in a coma, marginally alive, hooked up to a respiration machine that keeps her lungs and heart functioning.
Her parents, who flew here from Israel last week, accompanied by their own physician, must soon make the agonizing decision — whether or not to unplug her from the life-supporting device.
Artzi was also shot in the head by the same hijacker and shoved from the plane. Fate was kinder to her. The small caliber bullet, fired at about a six-foot range, grazed the right side of her cheek and ear lobe. When I visited her at the hospital a few days later she had only a black-and-blue mark on her cheek and a small bruise on her ear. But she was still suffering the traumatic effects of her ordeal. She has since then recovered and will leave the hospital either tomorrow or Tuesday.
KNEW DEADLY FEAR
Artzi recalled that her name was one of II called over the loudspeaker. She believed she was about to be released. Other passengers recall that as she stood at the edge of the plane door, a hijacker shot her and she was pushed or fell from the plane. According to Artzi, “I stumbled down the steps and lay under them.”
She could not remember whether she felt pain. But she did know deadly fear. She remembers that a few minutes later there were several more shots from inside the plane and first one body, then another, fell down the steps next to her. The first body to fall was that of her friend, Mendelson.
‘SAVE ME, SPARE ME’
Other surviving passengers told me that when Mendelson heard her name called she was frightened and crouched in her seat as if to hide. The passengers recall that a hijacker walked over and tried to pry her out.
One passenger, Tony Lyons, an Australian, said that a person who seemed to be an Egyptair crew member dragged Mendelson out of her seat at the orders of the hijacker. Other passengers confirmed this. Though they are not sure if the crew member was a man or woman, they recognized the dark jacket of the Egyptair uniform.
According to these accounts, Mendelson clung to her seat, digging her fingernails into the cloth cover. She screamed, “Save me, spare me.” She was dragged by her feet along the central aisle, digging her nails into the carpet. Survivors said this was an unbearable scene, worse even than the actual shootings. At the open door to the plane, Mendelson was shot point blank in the back of her head.
A few minutes later a third victim was shot, Patrick Scott Baker, a 28-year-old American fisherman-biologist. He tumbled down the steps. Like Artzi, his head was only grazed by the bullet and as soon as he recovered his wits he sprang from the wet tarmac and raced for the airport control tower. Two other Americans with him, both women, were less fortunate.
REMAINED UNDER THE PLANE FOR SOME THREE HOURS
Artzi lay under the steps, disoriented, for what seemed like ages, she said. “I did not know where I was. I did not know whether I was in Saudi Arabia or Libya,” she told me.
After lying motionless in the rain and dark for about three hours, she began to crawl from the plane. One of the hijackers saw her move and fired a bullet which struck her thigh. It was a superficial wound from which she has made a rapid recovery.
While Artzi lay dazed under the plane steps alongside her unconscious companion, Mendelson, a 38-year-old American woman, Scarlett Marie Rogenkamp, a U.S. Air Force employe from Athens, was shot in the head and died on the spot.
Another American woman, Jackie Pflug, was wounded and left sprawling on the steps. Both women had their hands bound behind their backs with neckties taken from male passengers. At about 3 a.m. local time, the hijackers allowed Maltese rescue workers to recover the bodies of the dead and wounded.
The critically woundedincluded a 20-year-old Arab, known as Omar Marzuk, believed to have been the leader of the hijackers. The authorities have been unable to interrogate him. There were five hijackers in all. Until today, it was thought that only Marzuk survived. A report from Malta Sunday said one of his companions was wounded and alive.
EGYPTIAN PILOT’S ACCOUNT
According to the account of the Egyptian pilot, Capt. Hani Galal, the hijack occurred about 10 minutes after leaving Athens, when the plane leveled off at its cruising altitude of 34,000 feet. He said two men, one dressed in a grey suit, burst into the cockpit. One held a live hand grenade to the pilot’s head.
Galal recalled later there were no political statements and the only demand was that he change course from Cairo to Malta. As soon as the air crew realized what was happening, co-pilot Emad Bahey pushed an emergency button which alerted dozens of radio stations in the area.
Behind the cockpit, the passengers heard a voice speaking in English with what they described as a heavy Arab accent. The voice on the loudspeaker told them, “This is a hijack.” They were warned to obey all orders, the first of which was to hold up their right hands with their passports. One of the two hijackers who had been in the cockpit walked up and down the aisles collecting the passports.
THE FIRST BLOODSHED
The first bloodshed occurred when the hijacker came up to a passenger sitting near the front of the plane who was an Egyptian security agent. A 20-year-old Egyptian woman, Lauretana Chafik, who was sitting next to him recalled that he reached behind as if his passport was in his hip pocket, pulled out a gun and fired point blank into the hijacker’s face.
The man was mortally wounded but his companions shot and seriously wounded the Egyptian security man. He survived only because the hijackers were convinced he was dead.
Two Egyptair flight attendants were wounded in the shoot-out. Two or three bullets breached the fusilage, causing decompression in the cabin. Capt. Galal dove the plane to 14,000 feet and oxygen masks were released.
A tense calm reigned for a while. The hijackers began to rearrange the passengers according to nationality. Palestinians were seated at the left rear, Greek passengers at the right rear. Those seat changes proved fatal to eight Palestinian children who died when the plane was stormed, apparently from smoke asphyxiation.
The two Israelis were seated at the right front, American and Australian passengers next to them. It was a process of “selektzia” — reminiscent of the death camps.
The plane made its first approach over Luqa Airport, Malta, at about 9:30 p.m. local time. Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, Prime Minister of Malta, told the Parliament later that if landing had been refused the plane might have disintegrated. As far as this reporter knows, he did not explain why. The hijacker’s only demand of the Maltese authorities was for food and fuel and for a doctor.
QUESTIONS AWAITING ANSWERS
Who they were, what their motives were, remain a mystery. Here are other questions yet to be answered:
* What role did a U.S. task force play in the preparations for the storming of the plane? Why did the Maltese prevent the Americans, who might have supplied the Egyptian commando with much needed technical know-how and probably saved many of the 59 lives lost in the attack, from arriving in time?
* Was the Egyptian paratroop commando as inefficient as it appeared or did it act on the basis of wrong or misleading information? Why did only one of the four or five Egyptian security men on board resist the hijack attempt? Why did the other Egyptian air marshalls fail even to try and rescue their colleague?
* Did the Egyptian crew, as some survivors charge, cooperate, willingly or unwillingly, with the hijackers in dragging out of their seats for executions some of the passengers, including the seriously injured Israeli?
* Where did the weapons used by the hijackers come from?” Were they on board the plane when it landed at Athens from Cairo before it was forced to fly to Malta, or where they smuggled on board at Athens Airport?
* Who were the hijackers, what did they want and who was behind them? During the 24 hours they controlled the plane, they made no political demands and said nothing which could reveal their identities or political ideology.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.