Catherine Hill: The long flight from terror

She was an elegant young woman with a seemingly bright future when she boarded the jumbo jet at Bombay airport in 1986. In one day, all that would change for ever. Catherine Hill tells Peter Popham about her 18-year struggle to overcome the mental - and physical - scars of a brutal hijacking
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The Independent Online

The voice on the phone is thin and strained. Her English seems perhaps slightly too precise to be her mother tongue. So, on meeting Catherine Hill, it's a surprise to encounter a tall, handsome woman with a strong, serene smile. She leans only lightly on her metal walking-stick, seemingly fully at home in her broken body.

Catherine Hill's life was blown apart by terrorism. Painstakingly, with many false moves, and many terrors confronted and faced down, she has put it back together again. She has come through.

That is why - now, 18 years after a Palestinian terrorist's hand grenade destroyed one of her buttocks as she sat in a jumbo jet on the tarmac of Karachi airport - she has published her account of what happened, then and after. "I wanted there to be a ray of sunshine," she says. "I wanted it to be a success story. It's sort of not a success story, because it's so full of horrible things, but at the same time it is a success story because I think I have come out of it well."

Catherine lives with her Italian partner Picci in an old farmhouse surrounded by the urban sprawl of outer Milan. It was a car-repair garage when they found it, but over five years they transformed it into an elegant home with floors of huge slate slabs, its interior hushed behind double glazing.

Originally it was one of several farms serving a local monastery, and Catherine and Picci have created a slightly austere mood. There is a square of lawn outside the living-room window; beyond that a high wall keeps the city at bay. In a corner of the lawn stands a tiny chapel with its own belfry. It's not a relic of the farm's original purpose: they built it themselves.

When Catherine and Picci boarded the Pan Am Boeing 747 in Bombay at the end of their Indian holiday in September 1986, they had not been together long. They had met earlier that year in Milan, his home town, where she had come to teach English as a foreign language. "Our relationship had only just got off the ground," Catherine writes. "Picci had never even got as far as staying the night with me in my flat... we hadn't had time to think about living together or getting married."

Then, at Karachi in Pakistan, four Palestinian terrorists seized the plane - and their lives were transformed. "When the door in front of our row of seats flew open and they burst into the cabin with machine guns at the ready, I was not so much alarmed as annoyed," she writes. But then a stewardess announced that they had been hijacked. Fifteen hours of fear followed. The temperature inside soared. Then, without warning, the lights in the plane went out as the auxiliary power unit failed.

Children began wailing - and suddenly the terrorists let fly with machine guns and grenades, forcing security guards to storm the aircraft. Catherine's left buttock was blown off by a grenade. Only the strength and courage of Picci, himself bleeding from shrapnel wounds in the foot, enabled them to escape to safety.

It could have been worse for Catherine and Picci; 21 people died. But, for Catherine, it was the beginning of the rest of her life - a life utterly changed. From being an elegant, confident young woman with a wonderful lover and an exciting future, she was stumbling - baffled, appalled, in constant pain - along a different path: that of the crippled, traumatised victim of terrorism.

"The experience I had when I went into shock after the grenade went off destroyed everything," she says. "The good, the bad, the indifferent. I hadn't had faith before, but I'd had a certain set of beliefs by which I lived. Afterwards, I had no faith at all. Once the bomb went off, that was it, there was no way I could turn to anything. And I certainly needed something."

From being a person "blessed with a sunny disposition" (her phrase), she was racked by depression that grew worse even as her physical condition stabilised. "I'd never encountered depression, I didn't even know that was what I had. But I can remember going home to see my sister Francesca long after I had recovered physically, and she was aware that I was very, very fragile mentally. She took me to the airport and I started to shake. And it was horrible. I didn't know what had hit me. And she said, I think you've got chronic depression. Before, I'd managed to stuff it under the carpet. I was in a bad way. And I had these feelings that I needed to run, just leave myself and run. Because I didn't know - where do you go, who do you turn to, who do you speak to? You're in a place that doesn't belong to you..."

That was years ago. Now she has recovered to the point where she feels capable of presenting her story to a public now haunted by the brutish new realities of terrorism. Hers is the story of a long, hard struggle, not just for physical recovery but to regain her self-esteem.

Her very survival was in doubt for weeks after the blast, as she battled the infections in her wound. Once she was out of immediate danger, she was sent back to Britain to have her pelvis rebuilt under the NHS. This, too, proved an emotional as well as a physical trial: her account of how her treatment at the (unnamed) London hospital, filthy and uncaring, contrived to drive her even more miserably inside herself is enough to shame any British person. It is almost Dickensian in its horrors.

But the NHS was only the first institution to deal with her simply as a creature to be serviced as long as necessary and then discharged as soon as possible. Dancing in the Sea is a vivid account of what it is like to be treated as an object by people who are just doing their jobs. Catherine Hill lost not only her buttock, but her right to run her own life. Her book details her extended experience of powerlessness, and her increasing horror - and how she ultimately, and very effectively, rose up in revolt.

With the support of Picci, she decided that there might be grounds for suing the airline, Pan Am, whose flight crew had fled the aircraft, leaving the passengers at the hijackers' mercy. The failure of the plane's auxiliary power unit in the absence of the flight engineer could have been the trigger for the massacre that followed. But the Italian lawyers to whom they took their case, one of them an aerospace specialist, were discouragingly modest in their aims. When Catherine and Picci decided to push for big damages from Pan Am, the lawyers became overtly hostile.

The assault on Pan Am worked to the extent that the company agreed to pay the costs of medical treatment in the United States. Now Catherine began to dream of throwing away her crutches, regaining the full use of her legs. She and Picci flew to New York, and Manhattan proceeded to seduce her as only Manhattan can.

"The floor was made of parquet, with a few Persian rugs scattered around," she writes of the specialist's office. "Leather sofas and old-fashioned armchairs completed the impression that one was in the tasteful sitting room of a well-off family... Dr Bloom was a pleasant-looking man in his forties... He was obviously doing very well for himself financially, and he was disarmingly informal." But the operation she underwent was a failure, and the fall from high hopes to utter despair and disillusionment was steep. Emotionally, she was back at her lowest.

Despite this, Catherine was learning, little by little, how to rebuild her shattered life. The process was slow and erratic, but she discovered what she had to do to mend herself. In New York, she took a crucial step when she decided to look for the first time at her wound. "As I pulled the tape and started to lift up the white gauze pad, I was sick on the shower-room floor," she writes. "I wanted to call a nurse, but something held me back. I finished taking off the dressing. I stared at what looked like an enormous T-bone steak where my buttock had once been.

"This rather angry-looking cross-section was a fact of life that could be weighted with any emotional meaning I wished to give it. I felt that no one in that hospital would be sparing a thought for the wound outside work time, and that none of them could have cared less for Catherine Hill. Once I'd grasped that idea, I'd be able to move mountains... I began to wash the site with care and thoroughness. I'd seen it, smelt it, and now I was touching it, not as a dare but because I wanted it to get better."

This was only one, albeit critical, turning point in the long process of recovery. "Slowly, I began to respect my body. I felt deep admiration for its tenacity in clinging to life... I washed the rest of myself in a kind of ritual of praise."

Catherine writes that her "reserved English upbringing had well and truly gagged me," but slowly she changed. Despite every discouragement from her Italian lawyers, her pursuit of Pan Am continued, culminating in a splendid scene where she gallops through Pan Am's various Milan offices on crutches with a bailiff, sequestrating the American giant's property. Already on its knees for different reasons, the airline now became sweetly reasonable. In New York, the two sides came to terms, agreeing to damages of $700,000. Other battles lay ahead, including a lawsuit against the New York doctors, which resulted in damages of $7m (which was greatly reduced on appeal).

Catherine had hauled herself up from the ground and triumphantly asserted her right to be taken seriously. But she was still wounded inside, and strangely her depression returned, worse than ever, after the Pan Am victory.

At this point, out of the blue, she experienced a spiritual awakening. She was returning home to Milan, and "depression hit before I'd had time to unpack my bags," she writes. "I kept asking myself what it was that made me so heavy with sadness. I was coming to the point where I could stand myself no more... Without thought, I went down on my knees... and began to say the Lord's Prayer. It was the only prayer I could recall, because I knew it by heart. I repeated it, I cannot remember how many times.

"In the silence, the line 'forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us' became as a huge mural to be studied scene by scene." She had not suddenly been born again as a Christian, and even today she wards off any discussion of religion. But she had turned the corner, and she continues to find comfort in prayer.

The big lesson Catherine Hill wants people to take from her story is that being a victim is no good. Today, the term post-traumatic stress syndrome is routinely applied to people like her, but she is not sure it's a good thing. "I've got mixed feelings about it," she says. "On the one hand, if there are experts around who can help you, that's good. But there's a risk also that you don't use your strength to come out of it... It's the 'I'm a victim' thing that I'm totally against. You're not going to get better if you identify with the victim.

"I think that's one of the reasons I didn't want to contact any of the other hostages on board the plane," she went on. "I didn't want to identify with them. In fact, in hospital I didn't want to meet other people who had problems. I just didn't want to identify with any of that. Give me healthy people. It's obviously my survival technique."

Now, at last, she has conquered that antipathy. "Funnily enough - I'm nearly 45 now - seeing people in pain, seeing people in hospital, mental disability; once upon a time, I'd have run miles away from it all. But now I'm able to deal with it and empathise, to have compassion and to give. That, for me, is a big step."

'Dancing in the Sea' by Catherine Hill is published by Mainstream (£15.99)