Three hijackers of an earlier time, two of them from Oak Ridge
September 20, 2001
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
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
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
* * *
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
* * *
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
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
* * *
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.