COVER

A Mediterranean nightmare

MARY JANIGAN October 21 1985
COVER

A Mediterranean nightmare

MARY JANIGAN October 21 1985

A Mediterranean nightmare

Their companions, some 670 tourists from a dozen countries, had already disembarked for a day of sightseeing in Cairo and excursions to the pyramids. Thus, when the nightmare began last Monday, only 80 passengers remained aboard the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro—patiently waiting for luncheon dessert in the ship’s dining salon. Suddenly, spraying bullets, four Palestinian terrorists armed with Soviet-made machine-guns and brandishing hand grenades burst from the kitchen into the dining lounge. As most passengers cowered on the floor, some tried to flee—and retreated under a hail of blows. Two were injured by bullets.

That dramatic entrance was the start of a 50-hour Mediterranean ordeal.

By the time it ended, with the passengers —many of them elderly and disabled—and 340 crewmen helped off the ship in Port Said, Egypt, last Wednesday afternoon, one American was dead. And the remaining hostages, by their own later accounts, had endured three days of violence, threats and unpredictable mood swings among their captors.

Erratic: From the beginning, the four Palestinian hijackers singled out three categories of tourists for special abuse: Jews, Britons and Americans. Soon after they seized the 23,629-ton ship they forced the passengers from the dining room into a nearby salon. Then, methodically, the hijackers began sorting passports by nationality, isolating two Austrian Jews, 12 Americans, many of them also Jews, and six British women. “We expected to be shot,” recounted Stanley Kubacki, a judge from Philadelphia.“They just hated Americans.” Meanwhile, Capt. Gerardo De Rosa and the remaining passengers and crew were left under the wary eye of erratic and gun-toting guards. The 51-year-old captain remained on the bridge while the terrorists screamed orders to guide the ship toward Syria and then to Libya. With most of the passengers huddled in

the salon, their captors sprayed the walls and ceiling with bullets—and placed gasoline bombs on the stage and the showroom entrances. The hostages slept on chairs or on the floor. They watched their captors pull pins from grenades and toss them recklessly into the air. Above all, they learned to fear their captors’ mercurial mood swings. “They looked like kids who were hopped up—dopeheads or schizophrenics,” said Viola Meskin of Metuchen, N.J. “They kept saying things like: ‘Reagan no good.

Arafat good.’ ” Added her husband, Seymour: “They were constantly changing their minds. They would tell us to get in line to go to the toilet, then two minutes later they would tell us to sit down.” Grenades: The worst treatment was reserved for the 20 tourists whose nationality aroused their captors’ ire. On Monday afternoon the Americans were herded to the top deck, where they spent four miserable hours exposed to the relentless Mediterranean sun. The hijackers refused them drinks or cigarettes, positioned two barrels of flammable liquid next to them and threatened to set them on fire if anyone moved. Then, while the other hostages watched, three women were forced to hold live hand grenades. Said Kubacki: “We were forced to sit very close so that if one of

these women fell asleep or fainted we would all be blown up.”

Death list: On Tuesday morning, the second day of their ordeal, the hijackers’ mood grew uglier. The terrorists moved 19 of the 20 captives they had singled out to the deck above the ship’s lounge and forced them to kneel. But one American, Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old New Yorker and a stroke victim confined to a wheelchair, was left on the deck below. By early afternoon, as the 643-foot ship neared the Syrian port of Tartus, the hijackers told De Rosa to put them in contact with the Italian and American ambassadors in Damascus and to reiterate their demand that 50 Palestinians held in Israel be set free. When the answer did not arrive promptly the Palestinians shot Klinghoffer in the forehead, ordered other passengers to toss his body overboard and then announced that they would kill, in sequence, the Americans, the British and the elderly. First on the death list that the captors had drawn up was Mildred Hodes of Woodbridge, N.J. When she pleaded for her life, the gunmen agreed to spare her—but they instructed De Rosa to tell the Syrians that another passenger was dead.

Those macabre threats hung over the passengers’ heads until the hijackers concluded their negotiations with Palestinian, Italian and Egyptian officials late Wednesday afternoon. About 12 hours after the terrorists finally left the ship, a ship cleaner discovered Austrian Anna Hoerangner, 53, concealed in a cabin toilet. Disabled by a foot amputation, Hoerangner had been walking along a gangway when the terrorists charged past her into the dining room. Apparently overlooked, she managed to hobble into a nearby cabin, where for more than two days she subsisted on two apples and water. “I had only one thought: to get away,” she recalled later. “It was awful. I really could not describe it. I had fear all the time.”

MARY JANIGAN in Toronto