Survivors Tell Of Hijackers’ Threats, Beatings, Booze Pilot Fought To Keep Controls At End; 123 Die, 52 Rescued After Sea Plunge

The hijackers pushed flight attendants aside and stormed the cockpit, beating the co-pilot and forcing him out. As passengers listened in terror, the air pirates, at least one of them drunk, spewed threats over the jet’s public address system.

“They said, ‘We escaped from prison. We are against the government. We are hijacking the plane. We have an explosive. If anybody moves, we’ll explode it,”’ one passenger recalled.

As the hijackers battled the captain for the controls and the engines shut down for lack of fuel, the Ethiopian jetliner cartwheeled into the sea in a violent crash landing that succeeded in avoiding an even greater catastrophe.

Fifty-two people survived the crash of the Boeing 767, but boaters pulled corpse after corpse Sunday from the plane’s shattered, submerged fuselage, which lay just off the palm-lined beach in the Indian Ocean, the tail still riding above the waves.

The death toll was 123. The survivors included the pilot and co-pilot, at least three of four Americans on board, and two of the three hijackers, who were arrested.

Capt. Leul Abate had pleaded with the hijackers to let him land the jet safely at an airport in the Comoros Islands capital of Moroni.

“He wanted to go there, but they wouldn’t let him,” co-pilot Yonas Mekuria told The Associated Press from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for cuts and bruises.

“I guess they understood it,” the co-pilot said of the fuel shortage. “But they didn’t give a damn.”

Tourists in bathing suits watched boat crews retrieve bodies Sunday from the broken jet rocking in the sapphire waves off the Comoros Islands, a small island chain between east Africa and Madagascar. Search crews covered the corpses in white sheets and ferried them to the palm-lined shore.

The hijackers, believed to be Ethiopian, commandeered the flight shortly after it took off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on a flight to the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan.

Armed with an ax, a fire extinguisher and a device they claimed was a bomb, the men demanded that they be flown to Australia - but wouldn’t let the pilot stop to refuel.

The men stormed the cockpit, forcing out the co-pilot. As passengers listened in terror, they made threats over the jet’s public address system, Ethiopian passenger Bisrat Alemu said.

One hijacker seemed drunk, and waved a bottle of whiskey that he apparently had taken from a beverage cart on the plane, the co-pilot said.

For three hours, Abate guided the jetliner on his own and tried to reason with the hijackers, asking that he be allowed to land in the Seychelles or the Comoros Islands to refuel. Finally, the pilot went on the public address system himself to announce that the jet was running out of fuel.

One engine had stopped, and the other would shortly, the pilot told the passengers. He was going to try to ditch the plane in the sea.

The hijackers fought the pilot for control of the aircraft in the last minutes aloft, the co-pilot said. “They were interfering with procedures, grabbing at the instruments. They snatched the radio from the jack.”

Back in the cabin, Bisrat said, “People were screaming. Some were praying.”

“We knew we were going to land in the sea. We already knew that we were going to die,” said N.B. Surti, a passenger from Bombay, India.

Survivors said a wing clipped the water. Then the body of the plane slammed into the sea, bouncing and flipping at least once before it broke apart.

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