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

Silence is finally broken. The captain. The quiet, calm, soothing voice of my captain. I look to him as my savior. A second father.

"This is the captain speaking. We have landed in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport. We are in radio contact with the authorities in France. I have confidence that the world understands the seriousness of our condition, and will agree to the demands of the hijackers. Please remain calm and do as you are told."

Quiet. My captain is quiet again. He must be tired. I hunger for more information from his soothing voice—tell me again, "remain calm." Quiet. Another cigarette. The wave passes through.

I go to the toilet up front. Make up trouble opening the door and listen, the captain to the oily-skinned one: "Look, it's the French. Don't you understand, they are creating the problems. It is not the American press or the American government. Christ, the French weren't even going to let us land in Paris. They wanted us to fly to Reims. Do you know what is there, in Reims? The military, the French Military base. They were just going to surround us with tanks and say, 'Surrender, or we'll blow you up.' I had to tell them, 'Look, I have no choice. The hijackers have told me to land in Paris and I have no choice. We are landing in Paris.' And finally the French say okay."

The oily-skinned one turns in his chair. I open the door to the toilet. I look at myself in the mirror. I don't know how to describe how I look.

The fucking frogs. I hate them almost as much as the hijackers. Politicians. And the captain is breaking; I can feel it.

I go out. The shepherd is there. "Back to your seat."

The man in black leather marches the aisle back and forth, the bomb in his hand like a rifle at his shoulder guarding the tomb. Back and forth. Pacing for answers. No one knows what to do. They had not planned for this. Nothing goes well. The negotiations are sputtering. The jowls of French politicians are offering digressions, inconsequentials, oratories off thick tongues, "Mais monsieur, il faut que vous comprenez, comprenez, comprenez." There is nothing to understand. You do or I die. It is that simple.

The priest—a bishop, in fact—had taken off his collar, but now he begins to fumble with it. Why now? Tucks in his shirt. He goes to the cockpit. No one has asked him to go up there, but no one resists his decision.

I don't like this. Why the priest? If someone is sick they could have asked me for help; I am the doctor, the healer. Me, not a priest. I don't like this. Not a goddamn priest.

"My fellow passengers, my friends"—the loudspeaker. My God, they have got him on the loudspeaker. "My friends, the negotiations have reached a critical point. They are not going well. We must now pray." (No. No, Father, I am not ready to pray.) "Pray for our captain, for our government, for the French, for the hijackers that they will be strong, and be able to reach an accord. But, my friends we must also now pray for ourselves. I know that all of you are not Roman Catholics," (I am a Jew, Father), "but we must each and every one of us come to terms with our God as best we know how. Make peace with our Lord. Ask Him for forgiveness for our sins." (I have not sinned, goddamn it. I have not sinned.) "All of you who are Roman Catholics please now bow your heads and I shall offer absolution." (No. No. Please. Father, stop. Don't go on. You don't understand. I don't need that. Please. Stop.) "Our Father who art in Heaven.... "

[an error occurred while processing this directive] don't believe what is happening. God. I don't believe what is happening. Dear God. Dear God, we have no points of reference, no forum, no precedent. How do I address you? How do I come to terms with you? I am not ready to sell out, not to anyone, not even to you. I am being cheated, God, and it's not your goddamned fault. Do you understand? You're not even involved. It's my life, not yours. Let me come to terms with it.

Beating, pounding, aching, oh, I am scared. I am scared. Do you love me? I love you. Let me fight for my life. Don't you dare take that from me. Let me fight. I am scared. Can I fight? Is anything left? Is it all lost to heaven? Bishop. At least I can focus the fury at him. All is not lost. You are my target. Keep that in mind. The anger. The anger. Don't lose it, Richard. Don't lose it. The last seed left. Build on it. Make it firm, and plant on it. Oh, God. (Is it all upside-down?) Oh, God.

Write. Write. Dear Marjorie, mother and father, my sisters, my brothers, to the people I love—the pain of the love now more than ever—the people I love who are many. Write clearly. Okay: It is becoming more and more likely that I won't be alive tomorrow. I am terrified. But I want to talk to you one last time. I may never talk to you again. I love you all dearly. I love myself, my life dearly. Nothing is perfect. Certainly not love. But I love you in as perfect and imperfect a way as I know how. Please live your lives as beautifully and as happily as you can. Live too because you know I love you and you know how much I wanted to live. And be sad. But get over it, please. Get over it. If when you read this I am dead, then you are the last chance for my life. Take that chance. Don't let me down. Don't mourn me. Live with dreams and desires. I don't want to die.

Ground. Paris. I am in my seat. I am not sure how much time has gone by, whether it is dark out or light. I am not hungry, not thirsty, not tired, not hopeful, not fearful, not seeing, not hearing, not sensing. I am in my seat. I put my shoes on.

I walk toward the cockpit. Talk to a stewardess, listen to the cockpit. The captain is on the radio: "Mr. Ambassador, you have lived your whole life for this moment. Now get it done, Mr. Ambassador." His voice is cracking. I hear sobs.

Back to my seat. Waiting. Waiting.

The oily-skinned one storms out of the cockpit.

"Everyone up. Everyone up. Stand up. Up, goddamn it. All of you. Get to the back of the plane. Get moving. Get to the back. Come on. Move." No one is ready for this. We are slowly herded. Pushed into a tighter and tighter bunch by men with bombs used as prods. Sixty of us squeezed into the space of ten aisles. It is the oily-skinned one again: "We have been good to you. We have been fair. We told them where the bomb is in New York. We were honest. All we ask is to publish our declaration, that they drop the leaflets—and what happens? Nothing. That is what happens. Now it is time. We have been patient, but no more. No more. If they don't meet our demands, we will blow you all up. Do you understand? You better tell them. They better do it. And do it soon. They were supposed to have published our declaration, in the papers, and they didn't. They do it for the PLO; they do it for the SLA. But they don't do it for us. Well, we will show them. They will see we mean business. We are serious. I am warning you. They better do it. Or you will pay for it. All of you."

They are going to kill me. My thoughts burn in my head, dry up, and die.

"Stand up." Am I sitting? "Stand up." I stand.

Time was leaving. No longer the infinite friend and companion. The continuum threatened.

Fingers a switch. Click. Awakened from a dream, and threatened with sleep. I cannot escape. There is no chance as far as I can see. I see my heart fingered, open and wet. "Everyone up. Sit down. Up. Sit down." Kneading us like mud, rivulets from thick fingers.

A bullhorn speaks to us. "Is there a doctor? Anyone with medical training?" Yes. Oh Christ, yes. I am a doctor.

A man has collapsed. I go to him. I shall save him. I am a doctor. Yes. I am a doctor. His name is David. Diabetic. He has been groggy for the past two or three hours; now he is faint. Pupils, okay. Breath, nothing unusual. Pulse, 68, strong. Diaphoretic. Probably just fear. Maybe hyperosmolar state, maybe. Hypoglycemic? No, but give him some juice; not much else to do. Can we get him off the plane? Ambulance is called. Goodbye, David. Thank you, David. Goodbye.

The ambulance takes him away. He is saved. And I smile a faint, faint smile—soon drowned by the ticking that is the end of my life. No one cries, but I want to, desperately. The plane of us wants to cry and sob and rejoice that we are saved. We are not saved, and no one cries. David is driven away.

"What are you talking about. Stop talking." It is the bullhorn; talking to whom? "No one sits down. No one talks." We stand huddled together. Nothing has changed. I try to think about David.

The bombs change places. We are allowed to sit down. The oily-skinned one goes back to the cockpit. Three people are chosen to leave the plane: a passenger, the blond, the copilot. There is hope.

Someone else is sick. I tend to him. He has ulcers. I don't think they will kill us. I suggest they get him off the plane just in case. They refuse. He stays. I check on him as often as they let me.

We can do little but wait. The unfolding progresses. Negotiations are going better. Concessions have been made. The blond does not return; that alone still worries me.

They herd us again, the last time. Exactly the same. The bombs. The hijackers. But this time I am not worried. I am not going to die, and even if they kill me, I am really too tired to feel any difference. My emotions are gone. Muscles stand me up, turn head, focus my eyes. Long tight filaments.

The oily one, the one I have feared most from the start, emerges from the cockpit. I watch his hands without fear. He is smiling now. It is over. "Do not worry, my friends." My friends. If I had enough strength I would spit. "Do not worry, my friends. You will be all right. They have granted our demands. We are satisfied. You will be released." He smiles at us as if we have shared something together, some joint cause, some union of purpose. Am I supposed to thank you? He smiles at me. I look away; he still has the bombs taped to him and I don't want to be killed, not now. They tell us to sit down.

We are all relieved. I see smiles. Some tears. Some of the passengers thank the hijackers. For what? One of the passengers puts his arm around the shepherd, and the shepherd puts his arm around this lone member of his flock. "You know, Peter"—the shepherd's name is Peter—"have you and the others thought about going back to New York with us? You would get a fairer trial in America than from the French." What is he saying? Do I hear right? The lamb asking the wolf to share a meal? The hijackers confer once again. Break up. The oily one back to the cockpit. Emerges. Smiling. "Do not worry. You will be freed." Assurances repeated two or three times. Then, finally: "You see, my friends, we have a cause, and we wanted the world to understand our cause, a cause of oppressed people. It is like your revolution. A just cause. Now the world knows. I hope that you will support our aims. It is just; it is right. We will win, but it will be hard; a long hard struggle is ahead for my people. I do not care what happens to me. They can kill me—cut me up into hundreds of little pieces. Put me into jail for the rest of my life. You see, I don't care. They can do to me as they like, for the message is sent; I have done my work for my people.

"You are free to go now. You see, my friends, there are no bombs, they are not real. You see"—he unstraps the sticks from his chest, removes the black tape, pulls off a piece—"you see. It is just clay. Just clay, my friends. We never intended to hurt you. It is just clay. And the pots"—he removes the tape and opens one of the pots. "Just clay, my friends. Just clay."

I close my eyes. Nothing is real. My perceptions are all wrong. Everything is reversed, upside-down. I don't know what to fear, what to love. No one is threatened. I am six back in Brooklyn: it is cops and robbers. The hand in the pocket bulging a gun.

They had no guns. No bomb. No danger. No danger? All is backward. Nothing is as it seemed. I must have been dreaming. The killers are friends. The friends are fools. The game is for show. No one will die. Time to wake up. Eat your breakfast. Awake to the morning, the world, the test of what's real. Time to walk onto the runway in France.

It is eight A.M. in Paris. Bonjour. The dream goes on. Where am I? You have had a bad dream. Am I crazy? No, just relax. A bad dream? Yes. Everything will be all right. Mother is in the kitchen making croissants. What's that?

"This is the captain speaking." His voice is clean, no cracks. "We have all been through an incredible experience. But it is over for us. No one is hurt. However, it is not over for our hijackers. Their ordeal is just beginning. They have a cause. They are brave, committed people. Idealistic, dedicated people. Like the people who helped to shape our country. They are trying to do the same for theirs. I think we should all give them a hand." I look around me. The hijackers are smiling. The audience is applauding. It has come full turn.

We arrive at the theater. Stop clapping, you fools. The cadence continues. Tinker. Tailor. Actor. Fool. Let me out of here. Open the gate. Please let me out of here. No, the last curtain call.

It is the oily-skinned one. "We are going to give ourselves up, and take our cause to the United Nations. To be tried by the peoples of the world."

Last rites. A nightmare on stage. Boys come of age. Have a drink.

It is morning. Eight A.M. in Paris. I am on the runway at a far end of Charles de Gaulle Airport. I have a bag in one hand; the other is holding my hip. Other passengers are around me. The plane is behind me. TWA—flight 355 to Chicago and Tucson. It is a crisp morning. The air feels good. Green grass grows beside the runway. Wind in my face. No one else is around. No press. No police. No cars. No buses. No tanks. No curious onlookers. Nobody except us.

In the distance I see a bus approaching. TWA on the side. It stops several hundred yards down the runway. We walk to it. Get on. It drives us off the runway, past busloads of cops, squad cars, bomb trucks. Up to the hotel, then hundreds of pressmen, cameras, lights, questions. Walk through the lines. Say nothing. To anyone.

In the lobby I see David. David, my patient. My real patient. How are you? He is fine. He is not a diabetic. Malingering. I can't blame him. It makes sense.

I find Frank. We touch, hold on for a while. It is good to see you alive. Would you join me for breakfast? I am not sure who asks. Sit down at the counter. I speak French, order ham and eggs for both of us. The coffee smells good.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


What LBJ Really Said About Selma

"It's going to go from bad to worse."


Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Inside a family's fight to use marijuana oils to treat epilepsy


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In