The Miami Herald

April 6, 1982. p. 1,10.


Hijack’s end: ‘Buenas noches’ and a handshake


Ninety-six passengers and seven crew members arrived safely in Miami Monday after three hijackers had forced the Delta Air Lines jet they were aboard to make an unscheduled stop in Havana. It was the third successful pirating of a commercial aircraft from the United States to Cuba in the last nine months. Herald Staff Writer John Dorschner was aboard the Chicago-to-Miami Flight 591.


By John Dorschner

Herald Staff Writer


            The woman next to me cried. A teenage punk wanted to beat up the hijacker until someone threatened to hit the kid over the head with a bottle if he tried. But those were the briefest of moments, these quickenings of fear, among passengers aboard the latest plane to be hijacked over Florida.

            For the most part, the event was more tedium than terror. Passengers all around me on this flight from Chicago behaved as if they were being subjected to an irritating routine as they winged toward Havana. Just another hijacking.

            One passenger, upon seeing me scribble notes and learning I was a journalist, said she had a wonderful story idea, about handicapped kids and horses. She wasn’t worried.

            “Nothing ever happens in hijackings,” she said.

            A young guy in the back of the plane was holding a plastic bottle filled with gasoline. In his hand, too, he held a cigarette lighter. He sloshed the liquid around the floor and walls. The fumes began to spread through the cabin.

            Just another crummy hijacking. There have been so many in Miami. Almost anywhere else in the world, it would be a sensational story. Here, it’s just an encore in drama that began to be boring somewhere around the second act.

            The high drama started about 12:15 a.m. Monday on Delta Flight 591 from Chicago to Miami when the captain flashed on the No Smoking sign as we passed 30,000 feet above Lake Okeechobee.

            “We have a minor inconvenience,” he announced over the loudspeaker with that droll pilot’s voice reserved for emergencies.

            Three fellows wanted to go to Cuba.

            Everyone turned to look at the rear of the plane. The guy with the plastic jug was trembling. He had splashed gasoline on the blouse of one stewardess, and the feet of another.

            “It’s a really interesting story idea,” the woman said to me.

            “Maybe we should discuss it later,” I said.

            A gasoline fire at 30,000 feet is not exactly a pleasant thought, but flight attendants were moving through the aisles reassuring everyone. “Stay calm. Everything is OK as long as everyone stays calm.”

            I was tired. A small part of my mind was saying this could be genuinely dangerous. Someday, a hijacking is going to turn into a nightmare. I don’t know why, but mostly I was thinking that I was about to lose a night’s sleep.

            Two passengers, simultaneously, had another reaction. They pressed their stewardess call buttons. “If we’re going to Havana,” one of them said, “we want a drink.”

            “Not right now,” said the stewardess.

            Elaine Talbert, sitting next to me, was crying and shaking. She wanted a drink. She wanted to smoke a cigarette. She wanted to move away from the fumes—not a good idea, since the hijacker with the gasoline started shaking anytime a passenger moved.

            Finally, her daughter Allison, 7, patted her on the arm: “Don’t worry, Mommy. The hijackers are a lot more scared than you are.”

            There were three of them. Our man in the back. Another, whom we couldn’t see, in the cockpit. The third, in his late 40s, shuttled between the other two.

            A stewardess said the men had explained in Spanish that this was a family affair: a father and two sons.

            The father was the only one of the three who seemed calm.

            “No problem, no problem,” he said in Spanish to passengers as he moved down the aisle. Sure. Just another hijacking.

            I realized the three had been sitting in Row 43, directly behind me. They had been quiet during most of the flight.

            At 1:06, the plane touched down at Jose Marti airport in Havana and taxied to a remote corner of the field. Several fire trucks and squad cars were there.

            It was comforting and bizarre. Reagan and Castro may be yelling at each other over expansionism in the Americas, and yet the fire trucks stood ready to help the yanqui plane and its passengers.

            Uniformed immigration police boarded the tail stairway. Then a passenger who had been serving as an interpreter—suddenly and incongruently—stepped forward and extended his hand to the hijacker who had been sloshing gasoline.

            “Buenas noches,” he said.

            The hijacker shook his hand and smiled. He and his family walked calmly away with the authorities. They weren’t even handcuffed.

            So very civilized.

            Within minutes, busses arrived to take us to the terminal, to a restaurant where waiters set the tables just for us. The only other customers were some Russians waiting to board a Moscow flight.

            I sat at a table with a woman who spoke no Spanish. As the waitress approached, she asked me to order for her.

            “I want some Perrier.”

            “Uh,” I said, “that’s not the kind of thing they have in Cuba.”

            She seemed puzzled, but settled for a white wine.

            Most people ordered beer. Several Latin passengers refused to consume anything other than bottled water. They were probably Miami Cubans, though they did not announce that fact. No Cuban official asked for any passenger’s name, but still the Latin passengers did not look at all happy.

            Gradually, by twos and threes, passengers discovered a duty-free shop. They drifted in, buying T-shirts, postcards, rum and cigars. The T-shirts were labeled, “Made in Italy.”

            The cash register filled with dollar bills.

            The passengers were polite to the Cuban employees. The Cubans were polite to the passengers. So civilized.

            About 3 a.m., two hours after we landed, the plane was ready for reboarding. As passengers passed the immigration police, they said thank you. The officers smiled.

            Everything was reduced to bureaucratic ritual: terrorism reduced to tedium. Back in the ‘60s, passengers used to have to stay in hotels overnight before Cuban authorities allowed them to return. Now, people are complaining about a two-hour “layover.”

            Just before the flight took off, I checked the seats where the hijackers had been. Stuffed into the seat pocket was a cartoon ripped from a Spanish-language American newspaper. It showed Castro in bed with a Latin guerilla and a mobster. All were clutching something labeled “aid to South American guerillas.” The main headline was “Drug Traffickers.”

            Why would hijackers returning to Cuba bring with them an anti-Castro cartoon? It didn’t make sense, but then a lot of things about hijacking don’t make sense.

            Even we passengers were not making sense. About 4 a.m., shortly before landing in Miami, passengers groaned when they learned they would have to wait on board a few minutes, until a Customs official and an FBI man arrived aboard the plane to question passengers.

            People booed. A mutiny appeared to be brewing. We had been polite to the hijackers, polite to the Cubans at the airport. But now, back home, we had somebody we could yell at, and so we did.