The terror began in the predawn darkness at Karachi’s airport as one of the last busloads of passengers was sleepily boarding Pan Am Flight 73 for the second leg of an 18hour journey from Bombay to New York. Suddenly, four men, two dressed as airport security guards, brandished automatic rifles and grenades—and sprayed the tarmac with bullets. As the passengers dove for cover, the gunmen rushed on board the aircraft and imprisoned almost 400 hostages—including seven Canadians and 40 Americans. They demanded a flight to Cyprus—and freedom for pro-Palestinian terrorists in jail there. But 17 hours later, as the bargaining continued, the lights of the aircraft suddenly dimmed—and in the terror of darkness the gunmen opened fire on their prisoners. After a 15minute wait, Pakistani commandos stormed the plane, killing one of the gunmen and capturing the other three.
The toll of last week’s bloody terrorist attack was high: 15 passengers died in the crossfire and 127 were wounded. Afterward, there were tragic scenes of children splattered with blood and hanging limply from their parents’ arms. Anonymous spokesmen for two groups immediately claimed responsibility: the Jundullah Organization, a pro-Iranian Moslem group active in Lebanon, and the previously unknown Libyan Revolutionary Cells. One of the captured gunmen shouted to journalists as he was dragged from the aircraft, “I am from Lebanon—I am a Palestinian.” Pakistani intelligence officials said that the gunmen were Palestinians. But spokesmen for Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat denied responsibility.
The incident led to a dangerous deterioration in the already deeply frayed relations between Libya and the United States. Two weeks ago key U.S. administration officials claimed
that Libya was planning a new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe. The Pentagon, in turn, was reportedly preparing a strategy for large-scale retaliatory bombing of Libya if the attacks took place. At the same time, America’s United Nations ambassador, Vernon Walters, toured European capitals to gain support for increased economic sanctions against Libya.
Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, attending the 101-member summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Harare, Zimbabwe, attacked U.S. policies. He also called for the formation of an international army “to spread fire under the feet of America.” That inflammatory proposal, only a day before the terrorist attack, focused attention on Gadhafi’s possible role in the violence. But at the end of the week he asserted his innocence in private meetings with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
The violence also led to renewed worldwide calls for stronger airport security—and more forceful efforts to stamp out terrorism. In a statement after his meeting with the volatile Gadhafi, Gandhi proclaimed, “My heart goes out to the bereaved families—they are the innocent victims of mindless violence and its conse-
quences.” Secretary of State George Shultz declared that “American resolve, backed by our power” will eventually rid the world of such incidents.
In another terrorist attack on the weekend, two gunmen claiming to be members of South Lebanon’s Islamic Jihad movement stormed a synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey, during Sabbath prayers. Gunfire and grenade explosions killed 23 people and injured five. Later, a statement telephoned to an international news agency said that the “suicidal operation” was staged in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Lebanese villages.
In Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark reported that he had appointed a diplomatic representative in Karachi to assist the injured Canadians. They included three people from Toronto who were in a Karachi hospital: Talakchand Doshi, 55; Aarif Gulamani, 23; and Gulamani’s new wife, Shainaz Bhattia, 23. Clark added that Canada had prepared a resolution for the upcoming annual International Civil Aviation Organization meeting that would set stringent airport security obligations for member nations.
The attack began just before daybreak at Karachi International Airport as the jumbo jet stopped to pick up passengers before flying on to Frankfurt and New York. At about 5 a.m. four men, using a rented van disguised as an airport security vehicle, drove up the airport ramp and approached the aircraft. Two of the men were dressed as security officers.
The terrorists chose their timing carefully. The Karachi airport passed recent U.S. government security inspections with high marks and, following a general U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warning issued two weeks ago, all U.S. airlines were on an increased alert. But the gunmen bypassed the Pan Am security system when they entered the tarmac from the airport perimeter—which is the re-
sponsibility of the airport authority and the local government. As well, they attacked on Friday, the Moslem holy day, when security is weakest.
The initial attack was both startling and brutal. As the passengers walked up the aircraft steps, the gunmen opened fire with Soviet-made automatic weapons. About 30 of the passengers scattered in terror away from the plane as the gunmen pushed past them and raced up the steps. Two baggage handlers and a passenger were wounded. As the gunmen boarded, they suffered a critical setback. An alert cabin attendant telephoned the cockpit from the passenger section to warn the crew.
The pilot, copilot and engineer —all Americans—swiftly opened an emergency hatch and slid down the 35 feet to the tarmac on special wires equipped with stirrup-like handles.
The crew’s action was controversial. Some terrorist experts accused them of abandoning their passengers, but others said they had effectively grounded the plane, making possible a commando-style rescue. At Pan Am headquarters in New York, chief executive officer Martin Shugrue defended the action. “The commanders of the
plane did exactly what we expected them to do,” he said. On board, the gunmen took up their positions. One settled in the cockpit. The others covered the main entrances. They were, as one witness later reported, “armed to the teeth.” Well-equipped security forces surrounded the plane and emergency personnel waited nearby.
Shortly after the initial onslaught, the terrorists tossed a body on to the tarmac. American Rajesh Kumar, 29, of Huntington Beach, Calif., died later
of head wounds in hospital. An Indian born in Kenya, he had moved to the United States eight years ago. He had become a U.S. citizen only last month—and had promptly flown to Bombay to bring his grandmother and aunt for a visit. The two women were
also on the plane—and they survived. Said his cousin, Di Patel, also a California resident: “He wanted to show them a free country, a free life.”
Nearly five hours after the gunmen took over the aircraft, the first tentative negotiations began with Pan Am representatives and later Pakistani officials. The gunmen demanded an Arab-speaking crew to fly the plane to Larnaca, Cyprus. They also asked for freedom for pro-Palestinian guerrillas in jail in Cyprus. That group likely included three men convicted of murdering two Israeli men and a woman aboard the yacht First at Larnaca marina in September, 1985. As negotiations stalled, officials in Cyprus said that they would not allow the plane to land. Meanwhile, Pakistani officials told the hijackers that a cockpit crew was flying to Karachi from Frankfurt—and two of the terrorists’ deadlines passed without incident.
On board the aircraft, the situation was tense but quiet. The gunmen made the hostages keep their hands in the air while they collected their passports. Said Jacky Shah, 13, of Los Angeles later: “At first they said they wouldn’t kill anybody if nobody moved. If we asked for something, they would give it to us.” Added 25-year-old Harish Parmat from Ilford, England: “One of the gunmen was playing with the kids. We thought, ‘a man who can play with kids cannot harm us. ’ ”
While the passengers enjoyed that
temporary respite, a crisis team gathered at the U.S. state department to monitor information. The Pan Am incident was the first hijacking of an American plane since the dramatic 16-day capture of a TWA aircraft by two Lebanese Shi’ite Moslem gunmen in June, 1985. The Pentagon ordered the aircraft carrier Forrestal out of port in Naples into a position near Cyprus. For his part, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said that Washington would investigate any links between the terrorists and foreign governments.
In Canada, External Affairs set up a
special task force to monitor the events. Vice-Consul Bruce Mabley flew from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to Karachi, a port on the Arabian Sea, to report on the situation and then visit the survivors. At the same time, the families of the Canadian hostages watched the crisis with growing fear. Torontonians Kabir and Jubilee Gulamani spent last Friday in front of their television, trying to discover the fate of their son Aarif and daughterin-law Shainaz Bhattia. Both 23, they were married last May and were returning from a honeymoon in India
and Pakistan. By late evening, Aarifs parents discovered that both of the honeymooners were wounded and recovering in a Karachi hospital. Said Jubilee Gulamani: “As long as I do not hear my son’s voice, I will be upset.”
In Markham, Ont., near Toronto, the Doshi family was worried about Talakchand Doshi, 55, one of the injured Canadians just released from a Karachi hospital. The businessman acts as an agent for Indian textile firms, and he was in India and Pakistan on a monthlong business trip. His family—wife Ranjan, 52, son Naresh, 31, and pregnant daughter-in-law Rupal, 30—were horrified when they heard that commandos had stormed the plane and passengers were dead. As Rupal said: “Everyone was in tears—you just can’t realize that it is happening to you.”
On board the aircraft, the hostages’ situation was growing more desperate. After 17 hours of operation, the plane’s generator, which powered the lights, ran out of fuel. When the plane plunged into darkness, Pakistani commandos shut off the bright lights of the nearby terminal. Then, as civil aviation director-general Khashid Anwer Mirza later recounted, “our chaps started moving in.”
But the terrorists panicked in the darkness. They herded many of the passengers to the front of the aircraft. Then, according to some of the hostages, they prayed before throwing grenades at the passengers and spraying them with bullets. Some passengers managed to open an emergency door and get out using an escape slide. But the confusion and the shooting were devastating. Recounted Raqshah Shah, travelling from Los Angeles with her two-year-old son: “I just threw my boy down the chute. It was terrifying.” Added Angela Romani from Milan: “When they gathered us together with no light and no air and started machine-gunning us, we thought, ‘We are dead.’” Then, the commandos stormed the plane. In the resulting crossfire, more were injured.
One of the terrorists was killed in the commando attack. Two were captured almost immediately. Another, in plainclothes, attempted to sneak through the terminal with the survivors. He was apprehended when many of the passengers pointed and shouted, “He’s a terrorist.” Many of the dead and maimed victims were still onboard the shattered aircraft as the three terrorists were rushed to prison. They left behind the question of who they were—and why they had killed.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.