1970 BWIA HIJACKED

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1970 BWIA HIJACKED

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1970 BWIA HIJACKED
With kind permission of Angela Pidduck and Capt. Mike Rezende

BW 400 Capt.Keith Melville, Mike Rezende, Michael Bower

May 1, 1970, Jennifer Hanna, then Selman, was the purser aboard the flight which originated in Trinidad and Tobago, with scheduled stops in Jamaica and the Grand Cayman.

Jennifer Selman, found herself at the centre of a hijacking drama aboard a British West Indian Airways (BWIA) Boeing 727 Sunjet enroute from Kingston to Miami, which absolutely terrified her.

"We had just taken off from Kingston and I was standing in the galley when two men approached from the economy class. I instinctively went up to them and asked if I could help, because they were headed to the first-class section which was not allowed."

The men, Black North Americans, never answered. Instead they put a knife to the neck of air hostess, Elizabeth Wrigley and told her to go to the cockpit. "She didn't see what was happening as she wasn't facing them, however, I saw clearly and so I said 'Go Liz go, just go' I then pressed the emergency several times to alert the captain."

First Officer Michael Rezende said that “the cockpit door was opened and he saw Elizabeth Wrigley being force-ably held by a large Black guy with a knife to her throat and a gun that looked like a German Luger who held his gun to my head, declared to the crew that this flight is “Afro American Freedom Fighters One.” This was in the framework of American Black Power activism in America.

Flight Engineer Michael Bower told the Hijacker that this aircraft cant fly to Africa for lack of sufficient fuel. The Hijacker replied that we will then land in the sea.

Michael Bower then suggested in his wisdom, Why dont we fly to Trinidad where he can commandeer a Boeing 707 which could carry enough fuel to get to Africa. This clearly annoyed the hijacker who pointed the gun to Bowers head and said, You will be the first to die”, then pointing the gun to the Captian Melville, “and You second.”

Realising that this was a nut case, Rezende, in an effort to calm the situation, said to the Hijacker, “ But you are Hijacking the wrong airline, all of us in the Caribbean are Black. We have Black Power.” This seemed to please the hijacker and hold Rezende in favor as he turned to the flight attendants in the galley, “ You see this Man, bring him anything he wants Coffee, cigarettes anything.”He then let Elizabeth go and she exited the cockpit, the hijacker then demanded that the Captain change course and fly to Algiers.

Bower then showed the hijacker the flight log which showed the #2 engine was loosing oil and needed to be topped up frequently. This seemed to put some doubt in the hijackers mind about the aircraft.

One of the hijackers announced from the cockpit, "This is your new commander and the flight's name is changed to AAFF, Afro American Freedom Flight Number One."

The Captain then suggested that they stop in Cuba to refuel and put some oil in the engine."At first they said he should put the oil in engine number one into engine number two, and the captain explained that that would take at least two days with the help of a trained engineer.

Instead of flying to Miami, the aircraft was forced to go to Havana, Cuba where the men held the 63 passengers, including the crew, hostage for approximately seven hours while demanding that the plane be refuelled and flown to Algiers for a meeting with American Author Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther who was living there in exile.

"It was really terrifying. They had a map with them and they were pointing out from a layman's perspective how they wanted to go from Cuba to Guyana, from Guyana to Natal in Brazil and then to Dakar, Africa. They were talking about uncharted territory and all the time I remember thinking that they might kidnap me and keep me in Africa since I was the only visibly black crew member," said Hanna.

F/O Rezende attempted to set the Transponder to the international distress code for a hijack but the hijacker said “ Dont -bleep- with that!” making the crew realise that he knew something about aircraft. Communications were made with Havana and permission to land was recieved from the Cuban Authorities.

Wesley Chang, BWIA Area Manager for Jamaican and the Grand Cayman Islands said the two hijackers, identified as Robert Wiggins of New York and Robert Alonzo of North Carolina wanted to go to Senaga a Republic in Africa.

Quick-thinking and experienced captain, Keith Melville who told the men, who threatened to shoot up the passengers and throw their bodies outside, that there was a leak in the second engine.

On landing in Havana airport Rezende observed many fox holes dug around the perimeter of the runway with armed soldiers and anti aircraft gun emplacements, they were prepared for war.

Capt Melville put the aircraft firmly on the ground and applied full reverse thrust as approaching fast from the other end of the runway directly at the aricraft was cherry picker vehicle ( like what T&TEC uses to fix wires) with the arm fully extended and in its bucket were armed soldiers with automatic weapons pointing directly at the cockpit. The aircraft was immediately surrounded by military vehicles and troops.

As soon as the aircraft came to a stop on the runway the cherry picker pulled up to the captain side window and the soldiers pointed their weapons directly at those in the cockpit who made hand signals to shut down engines and open the window and cabin door.

There must have been another truck with an air stair and the Cabin door was opened from the outside and a well dressed Cuban authority entered the cockpit and spoke in perfect English, who said “ Only One Hijacker , why did you not tell us? We would have shot him out as we approached the aircraft!” Rezende thought, “You not serious? you would shoot the terrorist behind Capt Melville?” The Authority then quite nonchalantly declared, “ get the Passengers and Baggage off the aircraft!” and told the Captain, “That’s US$50,000:00 for landing fees and US$50,000:00 for hotel accommodation!” Captain Melville protested that he did not have US$100,000:00. “No Problem, call Trinidad, have them call Mexico, Mexico will send money tomorrow! No Problem!”

"The hijackers walked off the plane straight into the arms of the Cuban authorities and that was that, end of drama.

We asked the Cuban Authorities what would happen to the Hijackers? They replied “If genuine counterrevolutionaries we will train and send out, if not, they will cut cane!”

Passengers and crew were put on a bus and taken to downtown old Havana with its old Spanish Colonial buildings and to a hotel where everyone was assigned and individual room. The Cuban Authority told them they could go anywhere they liked in Havana but not out of the front door.

At Dinner time everyone was called down for dinner which they expected would be on the ground floor but the elevator would only go as far as the 4th floor, where dinner was served.

Next day the crew was informed that the Mexicans had paid the required fees and they were free to leave, the bus took them back to the airport where they boarded and cleared for takeoff and to the Cuban airspace boundary, where the US Air Force escorted them to Miami.

Joseph Denicola, Manager for North America operations, said the hijackers had surrendered to Cuba officials and the aircraft will continue to Miami.

After being Hijacked on Friday the Aircraft was released by Cuban Authorities on Saturday and allowed to fly on to Miami.

On Arrival in Miami Rezende said, we were met by every imaginable Government agency, FBI,CIA, Police Dept etc. And every one was interviewed numerous times individually.

The next day, says Rezende, "we operated BW 401, on time, back to Port of Spain, in spite of our stress. To this day there has never been a company inquiry as to what took place so that it may not happen again. BWIA displayed absolutely no interest whatsoever as to what happened although we (Capt Melville and Mike Rezende) submitted a written report of the incident. And the crew never received either a letter of commendation or acknowledgment."

“I do think the crew under the command of Keith Melville did an outstanding job considering that we have never had any training on how to handle such a situation, there were no hysterics, screaming or anything it just worked itself out completely calmly, must have been for the good training that the older wartime pilots and the past war experience together with the excellent training of Bidi Bell and Janet Scott .”

BWIA’s management and the Government of Trinidad & Tobago’s response to this life threatening incident was non existent and Staff were not told of the event, very poor in that it made no effort to analyse the implications of it and prepare and train all of its staff on how to deal with such incidents should they reoccur in the future, it was just swept under the carpet.
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