Truth be told, we had an excuse: a plane from the Jordanian company was hijacked for 28 hours before the hijackers blew it up after having posed for a picture: they were standing (all smiles) in front of the aircraft and shaking hands with the crew. [It was] a surreal atmosphere, because right after the destruction of the aircraft, the hostage-takers left quietly to join their families in the southern suburbs, [right] by the perimeter of the airport. Next, a Palestinian hijacked an MEA plane that was heading to Cyprus.
In Beirut the atmosphere was creepy. The Shiite Amal movement was trying to dislodge the Palestinians by force, who were already traumatized by the massacres committed three years earlier by Christian militias, and by the growing kidnappings of Westerners by the Islamic Jihad -a military cover for Hezbollah- from the camps of Sabra and Shatila.
June 14, 1985. Flight 847 of the American company TWA which had left Athens for Rome with eight crew members and 145 passengers on board, including 85 Americans, is approaching Beirut airport. The hijacking will last 17 days with a series of back-and-forth trips.
The hostages from the hijacked TWA flight at the airport on June 15, 1985. “L’OLJ” Archives photo
The AFP photographer went to the airport and captured a historical picture: a bearded hijacker with mesmerizing eyes, was holding a gun to pilot John Testrake’s head. The latter was smiling and exhibiting a great amount of self-control. He died from cancer in 1996 at the age of 68. Testrake was the one who sent the message to the control tower. The message was picked up by all the journalists. "We need to land, I repeat we need to land in Beirut. They are threatening to kill the passengers. We need kerosene. They are hitting the passengers."
One of the passengers, 24-year-old Robert D. Stethem, a US Navy diver, was shot in the head and thrown on the tarmac. Another passenger was luckier. The Greek singer Demis Roussos was released after four days, but remained deeply traumatized. He died in 2015.
The plane left for Algiers and came back the same night. The AFP office representative, Patrick Rahir, recounted on a blog ten years after the events how "Amal has used the high jacking to its own benefit".
“They are watching television"
Hezbollah organized the hijacking at first, and they called for the release of 700 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The case was then taken over by Hezbollah’s Shiite rival, the Amal movement, headed by Nabih Berry (then Minister of Justice), and current the President of Parliament. Berry assigned nine militiamen from his party to be onboard the plane to oversee the Hezbollah’s original two hostage-takers.
After two back-and-forth trips to Algiers, the aircraft landed in Beirut, and it was here where the most extravagant scenes took place. It looked like a family affair. The hostage takers felt and acted as if they were at home. They took advantage of this "stopover" to visit friends and relatives in the southern suburbs. One of them complained of the slow on-board service because his dinner didn’t arrive on time. "I could have made it to the market, gone back home, and cooked for everyone on-board" he said. Another asked that his brother be allowed on the plane.
On the sixth day, towards the evening, after the militiamen drove the journalists out, the hostages got off the plane, and the men from Amal split them up, assigning them to different houses in the southern suburbs (Amal’s stronghold).
Meanwhile -and just as unbelievable- in the cockpit, the crew was answering questions from a small group of journalists. "Tell my family not to ... worry" uttered co-pilot Phil Mareska. The head of Amal's political bureau, Akef Haidar, said with tongue-in-cheek: "The passengers have been chatting all day with their captors. They are very interested in Shi'ism and are watching television."
A group of journalists in the control tower were listening to the conversation. A doctor had been called because the captain was suffering from a stomach ache. A hijacker screamed through the microphone: "Bring American food to the crew. According to the doctor, they cannot tolerate Lebanese food”. He also had another request: he would like to use one of the light aircraft on the tarmac to go see his family in the Beqaa valley.
During the entire hostage-taking crisis, the planes of other companies were landing and taking off from the airport. The situation came to an end when Israel promised to release more than 700 Lebanese prisoners.
Before driving them to Damascus, Amal invited all the passengers to dinner at a fancy hotel, the Summerland. Displaying the pinnacle of cynicism -or maybe a touch of Middle-Eastern hospitality-, an Amal official said to the hostages before releasing them: "We hope to see you again in Lebanon."
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 24th of September)
“And then there were three. By the end of June 1985, three airliners had been hijacked in/or while leaving from Beirut, the city was the Mecca of air piracy. When a source at the airport called the AFP office to inform us that a TWA plane was heading for the Lebanese capital, the journalists did not believe him. "Ok, this is a bad joke. Two are enough. Find something else, [something]...