I was sinking fast . . . I had to get out

123 killed as hijackers ignored pilot's warning that jet was running out of fuel
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The Independent Online
Boats ferried the dead to shore yesterday from a shattered Ethiopian jet that crashed in front of tourists when hijackers refused to let it land before the fuel ran out. The Boeing 767, with 175 people on board, cartwheeled into the Indian Ocean on Saturday as the pilot, struggling with three hijackers, tried to land off a beach. Officials said 52 people survived.

Rescuers yesterday pulled bodies from the partially submerged fuselage, covered them with sheets and ferried them ashore. Tourists watched from the beach of a hotel a few hundred yards. The tail section of the aircraft rocked in in the surf; other parts sank beyond a reef about 500 yards from shore. Some bodies were thought to be trapped in the sunken wreckage.

Yonas Mekuria, the co-pilot of Flight 961, said the pilot told the hijackers the aircraft was running out of fuel and pleaded with them to let him land at Moroni; the hijackers refused.

"He wanted to go there but they wouldn't let him," Mr Mekuria said from his hospital bed where he was being treated for cuts and bruises. "It was pretty bizarre. I didn't know what they were doing. They were interfering with procedures, grabbing at the instruments. They snatched the radio."

The pilot, Leul Abate, warned the passengers just before the crash that they were running out of fuel, that one engine had stopped and the other would do so shortly. He said he was going to try to come down in the sea. "People were screaming; some were praying," Bisrat Alemu, an Ethiopian travelling to Nairobi said.

Witnesses said one wing hit the water first, then the aircraft slammed into the sea, bouncing and flipping over at least once before it broke apart. "The first bump was really gentle," said Frank Huddle, US consul- general in Bombay, whose wife, Shania, also survived. "Then the second one was really hard. The third one was even harder, like a 70mph auto accident. The last one was like an earthquake."

Survival for two British women, Lizzie Anders and Katie Hayes, was nothing short of miraculous. "I thought I was going to die as the plane came hurtling towards the water but all I could hear was Lizzie's voice in my head saying, `Undo your seatbelt. You must undo your seatbelt'," said Ms Hayes. "The doctors told me that is what saved my life." Ms Anders said: "I was sinking fast and I knew I had to get up to the top, so I undid my seatbelt. It was the most amazing feeling. I saw this bright light and just started to float upwards."

Ms Hayes continued in today's Daily Mail: "We were separated on impact. I was petrified. All I felt was something smashing on my chest. All I could think of was to find Lizzie. I can't tell you what I felt when I saw her.

"We started to swim towards a boat but there were bodies floating in the sea and pieces of luggage so the divers had to come to rescue us. We were dragged on shore with all the other dead bodies, which had blankets over them." Tourists and island residents rushed out into the rough sea in small boats to rescue the survivors.

"We knew we were going to land in the sea. We already knew that we were going to die," said NB Surti, from Bombay. "Five or six times I went up and down in the water. I wanted very much to survive. I fought through all the bodies and everything and grabbed a broken part of the plane. Slowly, slowly I came out."

Three hijackers commandeered the flight shortly after take-off from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, on a flight to Abidjan, on the Ivory Coast with stops in Nairobi; Brazzaville, Congo; and Lagos, Nigeria. They were armed with an axe, a fire extinguisher and a device they claimed was a bomb.

Mr Bisrat said they began yelling inside the aircraft, rushed up the aisle, pushed flight attendants aside and stormed into the cockpit. They beat up the co-pilot, forced him out of the cockpit and then made an announcement on the public-address system in Amharic, the Ethiopian language. "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'."

Mr Mekuria said one appeared drunk and carried a bottle of whisky that he apparently looted from a duty-free cart. Their only demand, he said, was to fly to Australia.

One of the hijackers was thought to have died in the crash. The other two survived and were arrested in the Comoros.

Antal Annus, the Hungarian ambassador to Kenya, was aboard the aircraft, a Hungarian foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday. It was not clear whether he had survived.

A French foreign ministry official said two French citizens were among the survivors. The Italian foreign ministry said four Italians had also survived. There were four Americans on the flight, including Mr Huddle and his wife. At least three were said to have survived.

Ethiopian Airlines said in a news release that the passenger list included people from Kenya, Ethiopia, Israel, Britain, Ukraine, Cameroon, Sweden, Austria, Canada, Congo, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, Lesotho, Somalia, Switzerland, Uganda and Yemen.

George Marray, the chief pilot for the Comoros national airline, credited the Ethiopian pilot with saving many of the lives by bringing the aircraft down next to a resort hotel where there was plenty of help.

Further information on the condition or identities of the survivors was not available last night.

Some were being taken to the French island of La Reunion, in the Indian Ocean, others to Nairobi.