The Miami Herald
Mar. 21, 2003

Four of six hijackers arrested by FBI.

Group of 6 men used knives to seize Cuban plane, FBI says


  As the 1950s-era passenger plane began its descent to Havana, Alexis Norniella Morales rose from his front-row window seat.

  A steward told him to sit. Norniella signaled his five accomplices, who forced the steward to the back of the plane and bound his hands with tape, authorities said.

  A hijacking was under way.

  The FBI said the six Cuban men used kitchen knives, tape and the airplane's own emergency hatchet to commandeer a twin-engine DC-3 to Key West on Wednesday night.

  They made it to the United States, but not to freedom.

  Norniella, 31, Eduardo Javier Mejía Morales, 26, Yainer Olivares Samón, 21, Neudis Infantes Hernández, 31, Alvenis Arias Izquierdo, 24, and Miakel Guerra Morales, 31, were charged Thursday with conspiracy to seize a plane by force and violence. They remained in the Monroe County Jail to await a bond hearing Tuesday.

  Some of the victims of the hijacking could turn out to be its beneficiaries.

  U.S. Attorney Marcos Jiménez said some of the 30 other Cuban passengers and crew might decide to seek asylum in the United States. They are now being held at Krome detention center in western Miami-Dade County. Those who want to return to Cuba will be allowed to go, he said. An Italian passenger on the plane was released to the Italian Consulate in Miami.

  Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay. But Jiménez said that while he sympathized with those fleeing Cuba, authorities would not tolerate the violent seizure of aircraft.

  ''We can't condone acts of violence onboard planes, especially not during these trying times,'' he said.

  The aircraft's unexpected journey began at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Alice Rea Bliss. The DC-3 operated by the
  government-owned Aerotaxi departed from Cuba's Isle of Youth. As the pilot began an approach to Havana's José Martí International Airport, the hijacking was set in motion.

  With the steward in the back of the plane, his hands bound with tape, Norniella, Mejía, and Olivares -- knives in hand -- busted open the cockpit door. They ordered an avionics engineer, a security officer and a mechanic to get out of the cockpit, Bliss said.

  Soon, they too were bound with rope and tape at the back of the plane.

  Norniella demanded that the captain ''fly the aircraft north to Miami,'' Bliss stated.

  What the hijackers apparently did not know: The pilot had started transmitting a hijack code from his transponder, alerting authorities in Havana and elsewhere that the crew was under siege.

  Air traffic officials in Havana immediately notified their Miami counterparts that the plane had been hijacked.

  By 7:30 p.m., two F-15s from the Florida Air National Guard had been scrambled from Homestead Air Reserve Base toward the Florida Straits.

  Onboard the plane, each hijacker was tasked with a different duty -- with Mejía maintaining security, and Olivares standing watch over the cockpit with an emergency hatchet, according to the affidavit.

  Just north of Key West, at a fighter pilot training facility operated by the Navy, officers were concerned that the hijackers might try to land the rogue flight on their runway.

  At 7:55 p.m., Cmdr. Pete Fyles, executive officer of Naval Air Facility Key West, received word that the plane was almost in U.S. territory.

  ''They said it was about 10 minutes away, and the aircraft was squawking a hijack code; usually the hijackers aren't savvy enough to know that has been done,'' Fyles said. ``That puts the blips on the radar screen that it was a hijack.''

  Fyles activated security personnel as a precaution.

  By then, the DC-3 was in the company of the F-15s. Outdoor diners in Key West, spring break revelers, and dog walkers heard the screech and roll of military jets overhead -- a sound not usually heard over the city.

  Moments later -- about 8:06 p.m. -- the blue and white plane lowered its wheels onto the runway of Key West International Airport. Waiting were dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement officers -- sirens blaring and weapons at the ready.

  The reception -- occurring as the nation waited on edge for a war to begin -- did not escape the notice of the suspects.

  The plane's rear door opened and somebody tossed four knives with seven-inch blades onto the ramp, Bliss said. Passengers and crew were allowed to go, women and children first. Then the suspects surrendered.

  The plane remained at the Key West airport Thursday. Cuba demanded its return Thursday.

  The U.S. State Department had no comment.

  Herald staff writers David Ovalle, Luisa Yanez and Renato Pérez contributed to this report.