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What It's Like to Be on a Plane When It's Hijacked

While Tuesday's EgyptAir hijacking turned out to be somewhat of a joke, a survivor of the 1986 Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking shares what it's like to live through the terrifying experience.

Although news of the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181 from Alexandria to Cairo terrified people when it was first announced in the wee hours of the morning, by now it's turned into something of a joke.

The hijacker, Seif Eldin Mustafa, diverted the plane to Cyprus, where he held it for several hours under the threat of a suicide belt. Aside from a demand to see his ex-wife, his requests were bizarre and incoherent. And when he finally surrendered himself (after posing for a photograph with a passenger), it was determined that his suicide belt was a fake. Cypriot and Egyptian officials alike have dismissed Mustafa as an unstable individual, while social media has turned him into a (rather divisive) joke.

While Tuesday's episode turned out to be a bungled mess, the reality is that being aboard a hijacked plane is one of the more terrifying things most people can imagine. To better understand the experience of living through a hijacking, VICE reached out to Michael J. Thexton, a survivor of the 1986 Pan Am Flight 73 hijacking.

In that event, four men from the Abu Nidal Organization, a Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorist splinter group, disguised as security guards stormed a Boeing 747-121 on a stopover in Karachi, Pakistan, en route from Mumbai to New York. The pilots escaped, grounding the plane, but the hijackers took 361 passengers and 19 crew hostage for 16 hours, singling out Thexton to be held at gunpoint for about 12 hours before ultimately opening fire on everyone. They killed 21 people and wounded 120 more that day. But Thexton had no idea how deadly the hijacking would be when he saw the first gunmen. He didn't know how anything would play out. VICE spoke to him about that uncertainty, and the psychology of hijackings, during and after the event.

VICE: When did you first realize that you were in danger?
Michael J. Thexton: I hadn't even sat down. I'd just put my bag on my seat, and then I saw a man struggling with the flight attendant... and he had a pistol in his hand of some sort. My first thought was just bewilderment, really—I just stared at him. Then there was a noise in the front door that I had just come in, and there was a man in uniform with a big rifle. I thought he was a security guard come to deal with the man in the second doorway. [Then] somebody said, "This is a hijack, put your hands up." We didn't know what was going to happen. It was a feeling of terrible uncertainty.

There'd been plenty of hijackings before this, but did you have a mental frame of reference at the time for what was happening to you?
In the early part of the hijack, I just kept telling myself, People get off. Because at that stage, I'd never heard of a hijack where everybody died. We were stuck on the ground in basically a friendly, reasonably well-organized country. So I thought that it would be OK.

The flight attendants were by all accounts pretty heroic. How much of a role did they play in keeping everything calm and orderly in the cabin?
They were all very dedicated—they were just brilliant. Never a tremor in their voice. They would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stay in your seats, or you'll be shot," in the same way that they would say, "Ladies and gentlemen, there's a short traffic delay, we apologize for the inconvenience." I'm sure it kept everybody thinking [they'd make it out].

What about the hijackers themselves? What were they like, and how did their demeanor influence you?
At the beginning, they were obviously quite jumpy. They'd just taken over a plane—they didn't know how that was going to go. Then we had [all the] passengers in the back three cabins of this jumbo jet being supervised by two hijackers. And because it was before 9/11 that was all they needed. I think we were all convinced that there were more of them—I was paranoid that there was actually one of them standing behind me. I don't think that would work for them now, because somebody would have a go. But on that day, they kept control very easily.

Photo by Kraipit Phanvut via Getty

Did it ever cross your mind to stand up and do something?
I don't think it did, really. When I was with a mass of people, I felt that it would be OK—that somebody might get hurt, but I would be alright. Safety in numbers. By the time I was singled out, there was nothing I could really do. I was unarmed and terrified.

I've thought about it a lot since 9/11. I think that now I probably would have attacked them, and a lot of people would have attacked them. I would have expected I was going to die anyway. That's what you all expect after 9/11. But on that day, I just felt that there was nothing I could do.

How long did it take for them to single you out? Were you aware of why they were doing it? And was that the first point that you really started fearing for your life?
At the beginning of the hijack, I was looking at the two people sitting next to me. They looked to me to be Americans, and I remember thinking in a rather brutal fashion: They'll be in front of me. The Americans are more unpopular than the British. I think everybody was trying to find someone who was in a more miserable position than them. It's a rather unpleasant human [trait].

It was about three hours into the hijack... the leader came into the aisle and picked somebody up from an aisle seat. He was an Indian, but he happened to be an American passport holder. And he shot him and threw him out to mark how serious they were. But I was unaware of that because I was minding my own business, and the plane must have absorbed the sound.

Then they announced that they were going to collect the passports. Thinking sensibly, you don't hand your passport in. You just get rid of it. But I was so under their control that I just handed my passport to [the flight attendant] still thinking that there would be Americans, and they would be in front of us. She, despite being Indian, had come to the same conclusion. So with extreme bravery, she removed all of the Western American passports from what she was given. When she went back with this bag full of passports, the only American passports in it belonged to Indians and Pakistanis, and she was able to persuade [them] that they were not the enemy. [Then] my name was called. I couldn't understand why they would have picked me.

They didn't communicate to you clearly what they wanted, but you assumed they had a political motive, targeting Americans. How did you glean that?
When they took over the plane, I thought it was possible that they were Pakistanis—that it was some sort of Pakistani revolution. I'd been reading a magazine in the departure lounge, and it talked about Benazir Bhutto being allowed back into the country that summer and starting up a political opposition to the rather dictatorial government. Which was partly trying to persuade myself that, if it was a Pakistani problem, they wouldn't be so worried about the foreigners.

It was only much later that I was up at the front of the plane, and the leader sat down in a chair opposite me, and [he] said to me, "The Americans and Israelis have stolen my country," at which point I finally gleaned that he was a Palestinian of some sort.

You were chosen about four hours in, but this hijacking went on for sixteen hours. Tell me a little bit about your experience over those next twelve hours.
I was just kneeling there at the front door while the hijacker made his demands and wondering if they would be met. I said prayers and thought about all the people I would leave behind. [Then] I thought about all the people in the mountaineering expedition [I'd been on in Pakistan] who I hadn't gotten on with. I decided I didn't want to die angry or afraid. And I was determined not to be angry with the hijackers or afraid of them. Once I decided that, they were much less frightening. I was pretty sure they were going to shoot me eventually. But that's what they were going to do, and they weren't going to make me hate them. It wasn't going to change me.

This hijacking ended in a particularly violent way. How did that unfold for you?
For twelve hours, there were maybe five or six incidents where something happened. Most of the time I was just sitting there. I actually was asleep, dozing by the door [when they moved me back to the cabin]. I could tell that it was darker and hotter... something must be wrong with the electrical system. I sat there thinking, I'm back with the others. I stand a chance of getting out of this. But it was obviously about to kick off in a minute because it was getting dark, things were getting tense, and the hijackers were all taking up position around the plane.

Then, when it was completely dark, what I remember was a single bang. I remember crouching on the floor. Then there was automatic gunfire from just a few yards at the front of the plane. And then more automatic gunfire from the back of the plane. And that sounded like it was from another country; it was so far away. They just emptied [their magazines] into the passengers.

Then I remember it being quiet. Which is a strange thing because it can't have been quiet. There were people dead and dying. But it'd been so very, very loud, and then it wasn't loud anymore. I could see on the far side of the plane [an open door, and I went out]. The [slide] had not come down on the wing... but I wasn't getting back on the plane for anything. So I slid off the wing onto the ground, which is a long way down, I have to say. But I had to be getting off that wing.

Did you pay closer attention to hijackings after this?
Yes. And other similarly dramatic things tend to affect me more.

How do you process them?
What we went through was nothing like 9/11. They're all awful in a completely different way. I think about the unfortunate people and often how much worse it is for them than it was for me. It strikes me sometimes it's much worse for people on the outside than for people on the inside. You worry about all sorts of things. At least if you're on the inside you know what's happening.