. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Survivors Tell of Hijacked Plane Crash Terror


MORONI, Comoro Islands -- A section of a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed off the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean killing 125 of 175 on board was winched onto a beach Monday with bodies still dangling from buckled seats.

The Boeing 767, which ran out of fuel and ditched into shallow water just 500 meters off the beach Saturday, had been hijacked by three men, believed to be Ethiopians, en route to Nairobi and West Africa from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Survivors told of how the hijackers, at least one of whom was drunk and waved a whisky bottle around the cabin, had forced the pilot to fly on toward Australia despite lack of fuel and at the end threw themselves on the controls and fought with the pilot.

The plane narrowly missed the Island's resort hotels and cartwheeled into the sea off the beach. Tourists and local boatmen were on the scene immediately to help out of the water those lucky enough to have escaped from their seat belts and the submerged fuselage.

Two survivors held by police as suspected hijackers may be released Tuesday, a government spokesman said.

Dgouma Ibrahim, spokesman for the Internal Ministry, said the men arrested after the plane crashed were now believed to have been innocent passengers.

When the two suspects were shown to the first officer on the flight, Yonas Mekuria, he told police they weren't the hijackers, Ibrahim said Monday.

The suspects were arrested at the central Moroni hospital, where all 52 survivors of the crash were taken. They remained in police custody Monday, but Ibrahim said they would be released Tuesday if officials confirmed they actu Among the dead was Mohamed "Mo" Amin, 53, the Kenyan television cameraman who gained respect and fame for his dramatic television pictures of starving and dying Ethiopians in 1984, which helped alert the world to the famine there.

Three Ukrainians, including the deputy commander of the country's air force, Viktor Strelnikov, were among the survivors, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Monday. The fate of a fourth Ukrainian citizen was being checked.

Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's flagship carrier, made preparations Monday for a mass repatriation of the victims to Addis Ababa. But their efforts were hindered by a lack of coffins on the Moslem island-chain.

"The problem we have is that we have no coffins in the Comoros. We are a Moslem country," said Ismael Mognidaho, commander of the gendarmerie of the Comorro Islands, located between East Africa and Madagascar, about 300 kilometers off the mainland coast. Moslems bury their dead in shrouds instead of coffins, and cremation is not allowed.

Survivors told of how the three hijackers had run down the aisle 30 minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa. The men stormed the cockpit, beat the co-pilot and forced him out.

As passengers listened in terror, the hijackers spewed threats over the jet's public address system.

Armed with an ax, a fire extinguisher and a device they claimed was a bomb, the men demanded that they be flown to Australia.

"They said, 'We escaped from prison. We are against the government. We are hijacking the plane. We have an explosive. If anybody moves, we'll explode it'," one passenger recalled.

For three hours, Captain Leul Abatee guided the jetliner on his own and tried to reason with the hijackers, asking that he be allowed to land in the Seychelles or the Comoros Islands to refuel.

"He wanted to go [to Moroni], but they wouldn't let him,'' co-pilot Yonas Mekuria said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for cuts and bruises.

"I guess they understood it," the co-pilot said of the fuel shortage. "But they didn't give a damn."

One hijacker seemed drunk and waved a bottle of whiskey that he apparently had taken from a cart of duty-free goods on the plane, the co-pilot said.

Finally, the pilot went on the public address system himself to announce that the jet was running out of fuel, one engine had stopped and that the other would shortly. He announced he was going to try to bring the plane down in the sea.

The hijackers fought the pilot for control of the aircraft in the last minutes aloft, the co-pilot said. "They were interfering with procedures, grabbing at the instruments. They snatched the radio from the jack."

Back in the cabin, Bisrat said, "People were screaming. Some were praying."

"We knew we were going to land in the sea. We already knew that we were going to die," said N.B. Surti, a passenger from Bombay, India.

Survivors said a wing clipped the water. Then the body of the plane slammed into the sea, bouncing and flipping at least once before it broke apart.

"The first bump was really gentle. Then the second one was really hard," said passenger Frank Huddle, the U.S. consul-general in Bombay, India.

"The third one was even harder, like a 70-mile per hour [110-kilometer per hour] auto accident," he said. "The last one was like an earthquake."