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Three hijackers of an earlier time, two of them from Oak Ridge

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  • Magnu96196@aol.com
    Source: http://www.oakridger.com/ ========================================================== September 20, 2001 Editor s License Dick Smyser Three hijackers of
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      Source:
      http://www.oakridger.com/
      ==========================================================
      September 20, 2001

      Editor's License
      Dick Smyser

      Three hijackers of an earlier time, two of them from Oak Ridge

      On Friday Bill Sergeant brought me his copy of "Odyssey of Terror." I was
      surprised and somewhat embarrassed that I had not earlier been aware of this
      book which, in explanation of the subtitle -- "Experience the most bizarre
      skyjacking in the history of American aviation" -- was published in 1977.

      I had been very aware, however, of the Nov. 10-12, 1972, hijacking that the
      book recounts in gripping detail. So were all residents of Oak Ridge and
      especially Bill Sergeant, at the time director of security for the Oak Ridge
      Operations Office of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

      He was roused from sleep that Saturday morning (Nov. 11) by a call from AEC
      security in Washington: Southern Airways Flight 49 would be over Oak Ridge
      within 45 minutes with three heavily armed hijackers on board, two of them
      who had lived in the Scarboro neighborhood here. They were threatening to
      dive the DC-9 into either the Y-12 plant or Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

      Bill rushed to the Federal Building where he, with Robert J. Hart, then ORO
      manager, Ray Armstrong, Hart's deputy manager, and a hastily assembled team
      of security people and plant officials would spend anxious hours in a secure
      basement room on into the night, their anxiety, however, paling by comparison
      with that of the 27 passengers and four crew members held hostage aboard the
      hijacked plane.

      And though by Friday of last week I had been immersed for four days in
      television and newspaper reports of the hugely more calamitous hijacking
      consequences at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I could not put this
      book down. And from it I learned much that I had not previously known -- or
      had forgotten -- about that now 29-year-old "Odyssey of Terror."


      * * *
      It began at Birmingham Airport, where Southern Flight 49 had come from
      Memphis that Friday night (Nov. 10) filled with fans arriving for the
      Alabama-LSU football game the next day. Henry Jackson, Melvin Charles Cale
      and Lewis Moore, separately so as not to arouse suspicion, boarded there, all
      heavily armed with pistols and hand grenades that they somehow managed to get
      past the limited airport security checks of those years.

      Soon after the plane took off -- intending to fly to Montgomery and then to
      Orlando and Miami -- the trio brandished their arms, forced entry into the
      pilot's cabin and the hijacking was on.

      Following a plan they had conceived in Oak Ridge, they ordered the pilot,
      Capt. William R. Haas -- co-author of the book along with Atlanta author and
      former CBS-TV news correspondent Ed Blair -- to fly to Detroit. The plane
      didn't have enough fuel, Capt. Haas told the hijackers. Of the alternatives
      he proposed for refueling, they chose Jackson, Miss.

      And thus began some 30 hours of landings and takeoffs finally ending in a
      harrowing near 1 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, crash landing in Havana -- the second
      there during the ordeal -- the DC-9's tires shot out by FBI agents at the
      last previous landing in Orlando.


      * * *
      In Detroit the hijackers planned to demand that city officials give them $10
      million as redress for police abuses they had suffered there earlier. But
      weather closed in and Capt. Haas flew instead to Cleveland where a plane
      flying from Chicago with the ransom money was to meet them.

      At Cleveland, however, the hijackers became highly agitated about actions of
      ground personnel and demanded that they fly to Toronto to load the money. On
      the ground at Toronto there followed hours of tension and uncertainty about
      refueling and the ransom delivery.

      Finally, at 6:15 a.m. Saturday the 11th, the hijackers ordered Haas to take
      off and the plane headed for Oak Ridge after one of the trio had declared,
      author Blair writes, "Let's take this thing to Tennessee and blow up the
      whole (expletive) world! The company (Southern Airlines) don't care about us!
      Detroit don't care about us. The country don't care about us!"

      All passengers and crew suffered extreme stress through the whole traumatic
      journey. The hijackers made terrifying threat after threat. They held pistols
      to the heads of crew and passengers and waved their grenades. But only
      copilot Harold Johnson suffered physical injury -- a bullet wound to his arm
      which one of the hijackers inflicted in a rage.


      * * *
      The plane circled for about an hour over Oak Ridge -- this about 10 to 11
      a.m. on Saturday the 11th -- low hanging clouds hiding it from view but the
      sound plainly heard by Oak Ridgers as they worked in their yards or shopped
      on a mild fall day. The city was almost eerily calm. The Oak Ridger staff
      gathered at our then Tyrone Road plant.

      AEC and plant officials had issued a statement saying that ORNL's research
      reactors had been shut down. Even if a plane crashed into one of them, it
      would not result in an explosion, they reassured. Except for utterly
      essential personnel of the limited Saturday work force, both Y-12 and ORNL
      were evacuated.

      About noon the plane diverted to Lexington, Ky., for more fuel. Then it was
      back to Knoxville where the money would finally be loaded. At the last
      minute, however, the hijackers demanded that the money exchange be made at
      Chattanooga.


      * * *
      At Chattanooga's Lovell Field about 2 p.m., the money, in mail sacks, was
      loaded and Capt. Haas seemed on the brink of convincing the hijackers to
      release the passengers. But movement of vehicles on the runways and crowds of
      the curious in cars lining the highways adjoining the airport (radio and
      television were following the hijacking hour by hour) frightened the
      hijackers and fouled the passenger release as they ordered Haas to take off
      and head for Havana.

      There the hijackers demanded to talk with Premier Fidel Castro. Not
      available, authorities said, although Castro was in the control tower. There
      followed a series of altercations with airport maintenance people and the
      plane was ordered to leave Cuban airspace, which it did, flying to the Naval
      Air Station at Key West and then to Orlando where, now after dark, the FBI
      attack occurred.


      * * *
      And these other incidents along the zigzag route which author Blair's book
      relates in vivid narrative:


      Shortly after the hijacking began as the plane left Birmingham, the hijackers
      ordered all men among the passengers to strip to their underwear -- throw
      their shirts and trousers into the aisles. Only hours later, and after pleas
      by the two female Southern flight attendants, did they allow them to put
      their clothes back on.

      Expecting the plane to land at McGhee Tyson in Knoxville, authorities rounded
      up Cale's grandmother and brought her to the airport where she told them
      she'd "smack his jaw and pull him off the plane."

      Besides the money, also loaded at Chattanooga were what the hijackers thought
      were the stimulants they had demanded to keep the crew awake, but they were
      actually only sugar-laced pills.

      The hijackers also demanded to talk to President Nixon to ask that he issue
      an order declaring the ransom money to be a federal grant -- to them.
      However, they reached only Nixon aide John Erlichmann who, in a vague brief
      conversation, seemed not to know what it was all about. Later they talked
      with John Volpe, secretary of Transportation, but he would promise them
      nothing.

      When the hijackers hinted that they might divert the plane to Key Biscayne
      where President Nixon, fresh from his landslide re-election and yet to be hit
      with Watergate, was at his Florida home, Capt. Haas assured his copilot that
      he would crash the plane en route rather than endanger the president.

      The hijackers also demanded parachutes. After they were loaded in Toronto,
      Capt. Haas pondered that, if they jumped, presumably after the ransom money
      was delivered, the high-speed jet thrust would make confetti of their chutes.

      As the plane left Chattanooga with the money, the hijackers ordered the two
      flight attendants to count it while they walked down the aisle giving several
      hundred dollars to each passenger.

      When fuel trucks approached the plane, the hijackers demanded that the
      drivers wear only bathing trunks.

      The hijackers drank heavily from the plane's stock of liquor miniatures.

      An elderly passenger suffered what was thought to be a heart attack but
      turned out later to have been emphysema.

      Fidel Castro personally greeted the pilot and passengers after the harrowing
      second landing in Havana. He held a warm and admiring conversation with Capt.
      Haas, the hero of it all, and then arranged a festive dinner and hotel
      lodgings for crew and passengers, for all of which Southern Airlines was
      later billed.

      * * *
      The three hijackers were imprisoned by Cuban authorities, presumably at the
      time with life sentences. But sometime later they were released and returned
      to this country. Cale, also known as Melvin Curd, was arrested and charged
      with a Chattanooga bank robbery in 1995. Moore, interviewed by Frank Munger
      in Wednesday's Knoxville News-Sentinel, now lives in Knoxville.

      And Congress, which had been stalling on the measure at the very time
      Southern Flight 49 was hijacked, finally passed legislation which, for its
      time at least, seemed to provide much more careful airport security checks.


      * * *
      Also in the aftermath:

      Capt. Haas and others were highly critical of the FBI for shooting at the
      plane in Orlando -- said it violated the rule that the captain of a ship or
      plane is in command.

      Capt. Haas told author Blair that, as the plane limped through its final
      hours, he had "turned the controls over to God." It was divine guidance, he
      said, that got them through it all safely. The hijackers themselves were
      subdued and non-threatening as the DC-9 screeched to its final landing --
      sparks flying from the bare tire rims rasping on the runway -- in Havana.


      * * *
      "Odyssey of Terror" was published by Broadman Press of Nashville. There is
      one copy at Oak Ridge Public Library. The Monday, Nov. 13, 1972, front page
      of The Oak Ridger, filled with coverage of the event, hangs framed in The
      Ridger's front hallway.-- RDS

      Richard D. Smyser is founding editor of The Oak Ridger.

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