Notes While Being Hijacked

On September 10, 1976, five Croatian terrorists hijacked TWA Flight 355, carrying 86 passengers from New York to Chicago. Brockman was one of the passengers; he wrote this account in the course of the ordeal

"This is the captain speaking. The hijackers have informed me that we are going to fly to Gander, Newfoundland. They have not told me of any further plans. The plane has been refueled, and we will be taking off for Gander in the next five minutes. Therefore, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and extinguish all smoking material."

Everything is back in control. Frank returns. I extinguish my smoking material. The engines push; the plane rolls and we proceed to runway nine. I am making this up. Like the man in the flight tower—Okay, TWA flight 355 leaving Montreal at 10 P.M. nonstop for Gander. Cleared for takeoff.

The five minutes grow to ten, to twenty. Nothing is on time. We have not moved. It is still raining. Frank: "Have you ever been to Gander?

Yes. I usually fly Icelandic to Europe, and before, when they flew prop planes, they'd stop in Gander, Keflavik, then Glasgow and Luxembourg. The high spots of Europe.

The jets roar and the plane begins to move. So far I have seen four hijackers: the blond who is always patrolling the aisle, comforting the pillows; the oily-skinned one—now in the cockpit bent over the captain. One in a black leather jacket sits in the stewardess chair facing us; he holds a black pot in his lap. Wired and fused. And last, the big one standing at the back of the plane like a simple shepherd. Frank tells me another one is sitting in the back cradling another bomb. Five of them altogether.

We are airborne. Thirty thousand feet. Everyone is calmer at this altitude. No threats from outside, only the ground. The hijackers are relaxed. The blond and the shepherd tell us not to worry, that everything will be all right. The shepherd has taken off his suit jacket, and tie. He seems more comfortable. The seam in his pants has given way at the belt line in back. A cheap, poor-fitting suit that I am sure he bought for this trip. He would be more comfortable in gym shorts and sneakers, teaching kids, perhaps how to kick the ball. They would respect him for his size and deep voice. All wanting to hold his hand on the way back to school—somewhat afraid because of his size, but wanting the comfort of that large-knuckled man just the same. This shepherd's name, I learn, is Peter; I come to think of him as Steinbeck's Lenny. Someone who would have trouble with murder.

An hour out of Montreal; we learn something. The oily-skinned one in dark glasses emerges from the cockpit; the black jacket replaces him. He walks down the aisle inspecting the catch. Stops three or four seats in front of me. "We are going to pass out papers for you to read. Read them, please. You should not worry. We have no intention of killing anybody. All we want is for our declaration to be published in the American newspapers. We are not asking for difficult things. We want the world to recognize the injustices against our people—the people of Croatia."

Croatia. I knew they were not Irish, but feared they might be Palestinian.

The blond passes out the papers—Declaration of the Headquarters of the Croatian National Liberation Forces." I read it. Well written. A good political document. The right words, phrases. Someone who knew how to write. Believed in what he said.

We land in Gander. The mood is relaxed. We had been permitted to walk around the plane freely, even talking with our captors. It almost seemed as if some of the passengers were going to exchange addresses with the blond and the shepherd. It got to be that friendly, that illogical, at times. I had trouble understanding the hijackers, and now trouble with some of the passengers.

With so much movement, I felt safer about getting up myself. To the back. On line for the toilet. Sitting in the back was the fifth hijacker. Collar length, clean black hair, straight in front, brushed off his face. Black moustache. Maroon suit. He was small—five-six at the most. The kind of man one sees often in the street or subway or maybe washing dishes—rarely speaking—in some Greek greasy spoon, on Second Avenue, uptown. I never thought about the man before despite the number of encounters. They were always so quiet—incapable of saying more than phrases in reply—well held by depression. Dark eyes watching, trying not to get hurt.

I watched him. Didn't move much, looking out the window at night. His hands around the iron pot. Lid was sealed with black tape. Wires, a battery and switch. I was frightened of the man. If someone told him clearly and forcefully to kill himself, he would kill us all in the process. I stayed in my place—as closely as I could.

Gander. Nighttime. It seemed deserted. The rain had stopped.

All of us were in our seats. Hijackers in the aisle, moving back and forth conferring with each other—a literal chain of communication from the cockpit, to the one who said nothing in the back. Finally the blond said something: "We are going to let thirty people get off the plane here. We will decide and tell you who will be allowed to leave." They will decide what it takes to leave. Do I meet the criteria? I doubt it.

Twenty-five are picked on the usual basis—age, sex, infirmity. Another announcement from the blond: "Do any of you feel you should be allowed to get off because of illness or other problems?" Several people raise their hands, and wait impatiently to be recognized. There is a woman going to Chicago to get married. She can go. A husband and wife who are scared, especially her. No. A young man with a problem he is embarrassed to discuss publicly; he whispers to one of the hijackers. I do my best to avoid overhearing. He can go. A young man who had been on his way to Chicago for a stomach operation. He insists that his friend be allowed off with him. Denied; they both stay on. The hijackers have trouble finding the last few people to release. A priest is on board; he was asked if he wanted to leave but he requested to stay. A middle-aged businessman was asked; he suggested they let the women leave first. Finally thirty are selected, asked to stand, and begin to file out of the plane. I ask the young man with the personal problem to call my home for me. I am still alive, tell them for me.

A few details: the 727 isn't equipped with navigational instruments for trans-Atlantic flights: its range is 1600 miles; its engines are in the rear—the hijackers want thousands of copies of their declaration dropped from our plane over Paris and London—the papers would get sucked into the engines. A 707 is sent to Gander—our escort to Keflavik, our next stop.

We leave Gander. It is past midnight. I watch the sparse dots of light disappear, and we are over ocean. Blink a few times. It begins to settle in. I have been hijacked. Fall asleep.

The sun comes up over ocean. We approach land. I am awake. Have I been awake the whole time, or asleep since the beginning? Iceland. I have been here before, but never by day. Stone cliffs from the sea. The waves don't break on the shore—at least not from this height. Just the touching of rock and salt water. We circle past the airport. Flat rock. The city of Keflavik where the houses erupt from the rock like the rock from the sea. The sea so smooth and unfeathered. We land in Iceland—the far end of her long runway. I can see figures in the squad cars parked in the distance. Nothing seems alive. On ground.

"Stay where you are. Everybody just stay where you are. Don't leave your seat." The first direct command from the hijackers. No one likes being told what to do. No one moves. No one talks. We stay for an hour or two or three. The plane is refueled. I watch. I grow more passive, more tired, more hungry. I am drained. What time is it? Nine o'clock. In New York, Chicago, Gander, Keflavik, London, or Paris? I don't know. Sit up. Find something to do. Smoke, spit, cough, go to the lavatory. No, they told me to stay in my seat. Piss on the floor? Am I serious? Christ, come on, Richard. Wake up. Ask for some coffee. Ask whom? Wake up. Jump the hijacker. Beat the shit out of him. Any one of them but the shepherd—too big and too dumb, he'd kill me for sure. The leader, get to the leader. Or even the shepherd. Knee him in the balls, your fist through his jaw, crush the trachea, hope it occludes. Kill him.

"Would you like a sandwich?" We are still on the ground in Keflavik. It is the blond. Sandwiches and cigarettes have been brought on board. I take both. Smoke first. As I grow more and more tired, I wonder who it is I fear most, the hijackers or myself. The answer comes so clearly: Them.

I eat the sandwich.

How much more time in this place? Look for my watch. Three o'clock. Adjust the blanket, fumble the pillow, hello to Frank now across the aisle. Can't sleep. Finally we move. The escort 707 is first to take off. Then us. The plane smooths into air. Time now moves in uneven pieces.

Airborne. Over the North Atlantic. I write my will. We are headed for Paris. My books. Pamphlets to be dropped over London and Paris by the 707. The land I own in White Creek. We discuss how to behave, which passengers are breaking down. My paintings. I am worried about one guy in particular. Some stocks. He is always talking to the shepherd, too much. A little money. We decide to watch ourselves well. There really isn't very much. And return to my seat.

Others continue talking. The obvious is generally agreed on. Treat the hijackers in a courteous manner, do what they say, don't ask too many questions—and try not to trip the one holding the bomb. The last instruction is the one I have the most difficulty with; the one to myself. The bit of insanity that creeps out the eyes when given the chance. But I am watching myself. It is not Thanatos, not crazed. I don't want to let them get away with it. I don't want to be led around the world a good lamb, and at the end of it all when I expect to be freed, be gutted and hung. I don't want to relive the Jew in Germany. I will not give up. I will not pray. I ask the stewardess the workings of each emergency door. I try to find someone who knows bombs—if we cut the wires, will it explode? Are scissors on board? How long are the knives in the galley? Can we kill all five of them at once?'

Are they crazy enough to blow us up in flight? Have they decided to kill themselves? Are they so calm because nothing matters?

The flight to Paris. I lie in my block of seats. Things are calm. The hijackers circulate among the passengers. Someone discusses Croatia with the blond. I can't believe it when the passenger challenges the blond's political arguments. People are forgetting where we are, who they are. Some huddle around the shepherd, hungry for information we know he doesn't have—"When will you release us? Is Paris the last stop?" We are at once too relaxed and too anxious. We must police ourselves. Don't talk so much. Don't walk around so much. Keep the aisles clear.

We enter French airspace. A Mirage escorts us now. An incredible sight. I want to be the pilot of that plane. She is just across from me—fifty yards, wing tip to wing tip...The pilot holds her back so she stays with us. My eyes run down her straight lines. I am falling in love with a plane. She tantalizes, teases, shows her belly and banks, climbs, falls, disappears, comes back. Wing tip to wing tip.

"Pull the shade. Pull the shade." It is the end of any peace we may have had. The one in black leather is screaming as he hurries from window to window. I pull the shade. The light is withdrawn. One by one, all the shades are down. The plane is silent except for its engines slowing us down into Paris. The ground comes quickly. Time is faster. I take my pulse just to get a read on things. Eighty. Strong.

We land in Paris. The plane taxis for at least ten minutes. I imagine we are pursued by the police. I have no way of knowing. We have no vision outside. The plane stops.

Somehow I know that Paris is the end. Nothing happens for hours. The hijackers are no longer friendly, no longer smile. They are scheming with my life and I don't like it. What do they want from me? My name is Richard. What can I give you? Nothing comes back to me clearly. They ask nothing from me but my life. Smoke a cigarette and die. My last request. A Marlboro.

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