FIRST-HAND: 'My wife whispered to me that we were being hijacked'

Robert Trautmann, of Texas, was a passenger on the TWA jet seized by Sh ia Muslim hijackers in 1985

We took off from Athens at about 9am. I was coming home from a pleasure trip with my wife, my children and my mother- and father-in-law. The flight was planned to go to Rome, but when the pilot levelled out, this ruckus started at the back of the plane.

There was shouting and pushing and a man ran up the aisle past people's heads to the first class area and pulled out a pistol and a hand grenade. My wife was sitting on the aisle and whispered: "It's a hijack.''

I said: "You're kidding.'' I couldn't believe my ears but then I got that awful feeling when your stomach rises up into your mouth. It was so tense. I was sweating and I could feel my heart pumping. They told everybody to put their hands up. The two hijackers were running round, back and forth from front to back of the aeroplane, very nervous. It was total confusion. Then they told us to get into crash positions, with our heads on our chins.

One of them was a real mean guy: He was really enjoying it, you could see it in his face. He was ordering people about and if anyone popped their head up he would hit them, bang, on the back of the neck with his chrome-plated pistol. It didn't matter if you were a man or a woman, he was hitting everybody. I couldn't understand how anyone could be so evil. I'd like to see the switch pulled on him if they could ever catch him. We have no use for someone like that.

Our children were quite young, about three and five, and we were concerned that we could have a really bad situation on our hands if they made a noise. Luckily they were sleepy and they didn't really know what was going on.

The hijackers announced they were turning the plane around and going to Beirut, which was a major blow because I remembered all the bad things I had read about Beirut. Then they took some people to first class and started to beat them. The sounds these guys were making as they were beaten were unhuman. I had never heard anything like it before.

One of them was brought out and dumped in front of me. I couldn't see him because my face was down but I heard him groaning near my feet.

The hijackers wanted to get our children off at Beirut but they would not let the rest of my family off with them. They eventually let my wife go and when I argued to go with her, the mean one cracked me over the head with his gun. By then I had lost track of time. I had a watch on but everything was a blur. I worked out later that I must have been on the plane for about 21 hours in total.

As we sat there on the tarmac in Beirut the atmosphere in the plane got very hot.

We were allowed to go to the bathroom one at a time and the smell from there got awful after a while. We couldn't eat until the hijackers handed out some bread. I didn't know if I would ever eat again, so I just held on to my bit of bread. They wouldn't let us talk or lift the window shades up. I began to get very stiff and sore, hunched over in the crash position like that. I already have a back problem and this crouching made it much worse.

I was constantly in fear for my own life. I remember hearing the shot when they killed the Navy guy. They beat him and then they just shot him and threw his body onto the tarmac. I knew they were serious.

When we flew on to Algiers I remember thinking: "Here we are at 30,000ft and there are these guys running around with grenades and pistols.'' I realised that we hadn't got much of a chance. You don't have all that many options and you don't know if you were going to make it.

The hijackers took the pins out of their grenades just to scare us even more. I kept thinking that in the West there is such a high respect for human life and yet here there seemed to be so little.

After what seemed like ages at Algiers airport we flew back to Beirut overnight, still crouched over our knees. When we landed again they began picking out people with Jewish-sounding names. I was taken off the plane with a small group and we were taken to a bunker. They lined us up against a wall like they were going to shoot us.

We were kept hostage there for 10 days, being harassed and pushed around, before finally being released in Syria.

I remember arriving back in Laredo, Texas, in a driving rain storm and I knew it was good to be home. I've learned to live with it over the years and try to forget that it happened. I don't have nightmares, but I think I'm one of the lucky ones.

Interview by Matthew Brace

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