Inside hijacked Ethiopian plane, gasps and then calm

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2014 - 9:21 PM

Edina woman recounts the hourslong ordeal she thought might be the end.

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Swiss police waited to get on board after passengers were evacuated from a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane at the airport in Geneva on Monday. SALVATORE DI NOLFI Keystone via Associated Press

Deborah Dillaway sat comfortably in an 18th-row window seat, floating smoothly over Africa early Monday morning. Her husband was asleep in the seat next to her on the first leg of their journey home to Edina when she heard a clicking sound.

Above the heads of passengers on their Ethiopia Airlines flight, oxygen masks fell down, a jumble of strings hanging everywhere. An agitated male voice came over the crackling loudspeaker and said in broken English: “Sit down, sit down or I’ll take your oxygen,” she remembered.

The plane fell nose-down briefly, then briefly again. This was it, Dillaway thought. She was 64 years old and this was how her life would end, coming home from working on an AIDS project in Ethiopia with her husband, Dr. Alan Lifson, a University of Minnesota public health professor. There was nothing they could do.

The passengers had no idea, until hours later, that their plane had been taken hostage in a bizarre hijacking by the flight’s co-pilot, who had locked the pilot out of the cockpit and would divert their flight from Italy to Switzerland to seek asylum. Back in the Twin Cities this week, Dillaway reflected on what she thought would be her last hours and on the troubled life of the co-pilot who had endangered them all.

Dillaway, a nurse, used to worry at every bounce of turbulence. She had played out crash scenarios in her mind dozens of times.

But an hour and a half into the six-hour, red-eye flight, when she found herself wearing an oxygen mask — the situation actually serious this time — she felt oddly alert, focused and calm, she said.

The plane’s dips were clearly not turbulence — people around them assumed it was some mechanical problem as the passengers gasped with each altitude drop. The message on the loudspeaker had seemed odd, but they brushed it off as a language quirk.

Mostly, passengers were eerily quiet, Dillaway said. She and her husband tightly grasped hands and said I love you. They thought about their 28-year-old daughter and 24-year-old son.

“I certainly don’t want this,” she remembered telling him. “But I’ve had an amazing life, and we’ve had a great life together. I am just worried about the kids.”

Flight attendants said nothing about what was happening. Passengers started to talk to one another, a strange sense of community forming through translations of African languages and English and Italian. A woman ran up the aisle saying she wanted a lawyer. One man got belligerent, saying passengers should be respected with information.

Dillaway imagined the flight crew somehow working on the onboard computer, fixing the plane in midair. She listened to the steady hum of the engine. She looked out the window and realized they had flown past cities where they could have landed.

For the next four hours the flight went smoothly, Dillaway said. The problem seemed to be corrected. They got up to use the bathroom. They napped.

When the plane started to descend in morning daylight, passengers grew nervous again as they felt the plane circling. Someone on a loudspeaker said they were diverting to Milan, but once they touched down, they saw mountains. A man in front of them turned on GPS and said they were in Geneva.

At the end of the runway, a squad of men dressed head to toe in black came aboard, shields covering their stone-cold stares. They said to stay seated, relax, put hands on heads and stay silent. They pointed gloved fingers at passengers one by one, took them out the plane’s stairway and patted them down.

Over the past few days, Dillaway said, she’s marveled at how quickly strangers from various cultures bonded in the dread on the plane and in the euphoria on the ground, where they were greeted with hot chocolate and psychologists.

They will probably never know what international negotiations were going on, she said. Or how emergency officials had prepared. They may never really understand why the co-pilot hijacked them, but didn’t seem to want to hurt them.

She thinks about the training of the steely-eyed bomb squad and the calm flight attendants. “What would be the point of telling the passengers that they were hijacked, really,” she said. “It’s kind of an example of how things worked well.”

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