Holidaymakers who escaped death twice in one day

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the passengers on board the Arkia charter flight from Mombasa to Tel Aviv noticed an odd sound of a muffled explosion just after take-off yesterday, they had just checked out of the Hotel Paradise, where someone was about to drive a vehicle full of explosives through the front door.

When the passengers on board the Arkia charter flight from Mombasa to Tel Aviv noticed an odd sound of a muffled explosion just after take-off yesterday, they had just checked out of the Hotel Paradise, where someone was about to drive a vehicle full of explosives through the front door.

In checking out of the hotel that morning they escaped death for the first time. The strange noise outside the plane was of them escaping death for the second time.

Not until much later in the flight did the crew reveal the whole story to the passengers: what had happened at the hotel and how the crew now believed that strange noise was a missile exploding a few feet from the plane.

When they flew in over Jerusalem, they were given an escort by two Israeli fighter jets. On board the plane, the passengers started singing an Israeli folk song together.

In the arrivals hall, they were clearly in shock. One woman burst into tears as she told the camera crews what had happened. Young women, their hair newly plaited and beaded as a memento of Kenya, stood and stared into space.

They had realised they were almost shot out of the sky.

Because this was the only way to visit Kenya, Israelis thought safe. Some might say it was risky for Israelis to be in Kenya after the bombing of the US embassy there in 1998, which was thought to be the work of al-Qa'ida.

But these people thought they were safe because they were flying on an Israeli plane, on an Israeli package deal. "That's why I chose an Israeli hotel, for sure. I thought there would be security,'' said Ofer Shtrer, one of 261 passengers on the plane. It was a weekly flight, and was always full, according to a representative of the tour operator. Hours before the missile attack, the plane had arrived from Tel Aviv full of passengers who were checking into the Hotel Paradise when it was bombed. The targets were carefully chosen yesterday.

Mr Shtrer was almost in the Hotel Paradise when the bomb went off. He and a friend were told there was not room for them on the plane, and they would have to wait for another flight. At the last minute, he was told that there were seats. Instead of heading back to the hotel, he climbed on board the 757.

"We were sitting at the rear of the plane," said Mr Shtrer. "Suddenly I heard a noise. I heard a bang. Everybody looked out the windows. People were saying maybe we hit a bird. But I knew someone tried to shoot us."

A few rows away, Shlomo Mizra was sitting with his wife. He heard the same strange noise. "We were the height of a four, maybe a five-storey building up from the ground," he said. "I saw two plumes of white smoke through the window. When we landed I checked to see if there was any damage outside the plane where I had been sitting." The pilot, Captain Rafi Marek, said he and his crew saw the same trails of white smoke from the cockpit.

Israelis believe they have the best airline security in the world. But a missile strike is their nightmare. Israeli officials may check passengers before they board the plane, there may be plainclothes security guards flying on board. But they can do nothing to stop a missile.

A Kenyan official confirmed that two missiles had been fired at the plane. "About two kilometres from the airport, two missiles were fired at the aircraft from a white Pajero [a four-wheel drive vehicle]," said Kimgori Mwangi, a police spokesman, adding that the people in the vehicle were "suspected" to be of Arab origin. The airport perimeter was the weak point in Israeli security. They could control who got on the plane but they could not control who was watching it take off from the ground.

Arkia officials said they were not sure that it had been a missile attack. But passengers said the crew had told them three missiles had been fired at the plane, and that at least one had exploded before it hit it. That would account for the muffled explosion.

Captain Marek said the plane was flying at about 500ft at the time. He said that the missiles only missed the plane by a small distance but that when he and his two co-pilots checked their instruments there was no sign of any damage. After consulting officials in Israel they decided not to make an emergency landing in Nairobi and instead continue to Tel Aviv.

No one on board the plane was hurt. But within minutes there was a deadly attack on the Hotel Paradise.

Comments