Eyewitness describes MiG attack
Testimony stirs emotions at trial of suspected spies
BY GAIL EPSTEIN NIEVES
It was 3:23 p.m. on Feb. 24, 1996, and First Officer Bjorn Johansen
was on the
bridge of the cruise ship Majesty of the Seas as it crossed the Straits of Florida
headed for Miami.
Suddenly Johansen saw a small explosion in the distance. The fireball
bigger than a flare. Debris fell from the sky, but he couldn't make out what it was.
He didn't know it then, but what he was seeing was the first of
two Brothers to the
Rescue aircraft being blasted into the sea.
Johansen's eyewitness account of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown
resounded through the courtroom in the Cuban spy trial Tuesday, as relatives of
the four dead fliers watched and listened in anguished silence.
Four minutes after the first explosion, Johansen witnessed history
a second time.
Over international waters once again, he saw a Cuban jet fighter tracking a small
Cessna that was flying north -- away from Cuba. Johansen saw the MiG-29 fire a
missile. About five seconds later, the missile hit its target.
``The [Cessna] plane was consumed by fire and many pieces fell
into the sea,''
testified Johansen, now a captain. ``There were no warning shots. There was no
other maneuver other than lining up for a direct hit on that plane.''
Soon the cruise ship passed by the shootdown spot, now marked
only by an oil
``There was not a chance of survival in a situation like that,'' Johansen testified.
Indeed, there were no survivors. Killed in the downings of two
Brothers to the Rescue volunteers Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario de la Peña
and Armando Alejandre.
A third plane piloted by Brothers founder José Basulto was not harmed.
The dead men's remains were never located. Some of their mothers
and brothers sit through the trial every day. Some grimace or close their eyes
during painful testimony.
Of the five men on trial, only one faces charges related to the
shootdowns. He is
Gerardo Hernández, considered to be one of two spy supervisors.
Hernández is charged with conspiracy to commit murder for
Cuban authorities the flight plan of the two Brothers Cessnas while instructing
other spies to shun the doomed flight. Defense attorney Paul McKenna has said
the Federal Aviation Administration provided that same flight plan to Cuba.
On Tuesday, under direct examination by prosecutor John Kastrenakes,
Johansen estimated that the first Cessna was 20 nautical miles from Cuba and
the second Cessna 22.8 nautical miles from Cuba when the shootdowns
That placed both sites well outside the jurisdictional limits
of Cuba: 12 nautical
miles, or 13.8 land miles, Johansen said.
Havana -- and the defense -- disagree with that assessment, although
independent investigators for the United Nations reached the same conclusion.
Johansen said he based his estimates on global positioning satellite
and navigational charts that enabled him to fix the position of the Majesty of the
Seas in comparison to where he saw the explosions. The vessel was 24.5
nautical miles off the coast of Cuba when the first shootdown took place, he said.
In June 1996, four investigators for the U.N.'s International
Organization (ICAO) concluded that Cuba shot down the Cessna 337 aircraft in
international airspace and not over Cuban waters, as Havana claims.
In the Cuban version of events, the MiG pilot and Cuban radar
tracks given to
ICAO claimed that both Brothers planes were heading south, toward Havana,
when they were shot down.
The MiG pilot also gave ICAO investigators a detailed account
of how he made
warning passes at the two Cessnas before firing his air-to-air rockets -- coming up
behind them from the left and then making ``a combat turn'' in front and to the
ICAO's report said neither of the downed Cessnas reported seeing
maneuver, ``and it was reasonable to expect that such an encounter would have
been reported to the other Cessnas.''
ICAO used the known positions of the Majesty of the Seas and fishing
Tri-Liner, whose crews witnessed the attacks, to locate the incidents at 10.3 to
11.5 miles outside Cuba's 12-mile limit.