On November 23, 1996, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was flying from Addis Ababa to Nairobi when the plane was hijacked by three Ethiopians. One report later described them as “young (mid-twenties), inexperienced, psychologically fragile, and intoxicated.” It would turn out to be the deadliest hijacking in history until 9/11. The men threatened to blow the plane up in flight if the pilots did not obey their demands.
They declared in Amharic, French and English that if anyone tried to interfere, they had a bomb and they would use it to blow up the plane. (Authorities later determined that the purported bomb was actually a covered bottle of liquor.) When the hijackers demanded the plane be flown to Australia, where they demanded asylum, the captain tried to explain they had only enough fuel for the scheduled flight and thus could not even make a quarter of the way, but the hijackers did not believe him.
Instead of flying towards Australia, the captain flew along the African coastline. The hijackers noticed that land was still visible and forced the pilot to steer east. The captain secretly headed for the Comoros Islands, located between the African coast and Madagascar. The plane was nearly out of fuel but the hijackers continued to ignore the captain’s warnings. Out of options, the captain began to circle the area, hoping to land the plane at the Comoros’ main airport; he was forced to ditch the plane, crashing into the Indian Ocean at approximately 200 miles per hour.
Of the 175 passengers and staff members from the flight, only 50 passengers, including U.S. Ambassador Frank Huddle, survived. Ambassador to Mauritius Harold W. Geisel flew to the small island and coordinated efforts to get the deceased Americans returned to the United States. This was no small feat given the incompetence of local authorities, who forced delivery of the bodies to the airport in a dump truck; the lack of facilities; and the obstinance of one particular NSC official, which caused the Ambassador to react in a less-than-diplomatic manner.
Geisel was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in June 2006. The History Channel created a short video, using computer-generated images and footage filmed by tourists on a nearby beach. You can also read about the Lockerbie bombing and other terrorist incidents. Go here to read more about the 1974 Pan Am crash in Bali.
“The Comoran government was screamingly incompetent and corrupt to boot”
GEISEL: We had a terrible plane crash, a hijacked plane that crashed in the Comoros Islands while I was there and six Americans were killed. We had no representation on Comoros, of course, that was from us. We had a few people who we knew, including missionaries and we got information as quickly as we could. They were tracking the plane; it was an Ethiopian Airways plane, which tragically crashed just about a mile from the airport when it ran out of fuel.
They had no such things as coffins because they planted folks directly in the ground. So, wheeling and dealing with the French in Comoros, we were able to borrow a few coffins and I brought a coffin with my baggage, if you can imagine. It was a terrible business. The first thing that we did- the French, who dominated the islands, it was a former French colony, advised us that a number of injured Americans were going to be taken to La Reunion, which is this island near Mauritius that is a department of France now, it used to be a French colony.
The first thing I did is I flew with the admin officer to the Reunion airport. The French military were very helpful and when the plane landed from Comoros, a French military plane with our injured people on it, I went to them, I interviewed them, the French being the French wanted the customs things done in French so I interpreted, none of the Americans who landed there spoke French. Actually, I ended up interpreting for lots of other injured people that didn’t speak French. It was just wonderful to see the relief in the injured people’s faces when I introduced myself as the American ambassador and then explained to them what was going on.
The next day, I left for Comoros and there worked with the French, the Israelis who had lost six people and the Japanese who needed help and who also didn’t speak French but who’d lost a whole bunch of people. The Comoran government was a farce, it was a dictatorship, it was — they were nice people but they were screamingly incompetent and corrupt to boot. The Department flew an air craft; you know the plane that the counterterrorism people have, with Consular Affairs and FBI people and all the rest. Our public affairs officer had gone ahead of me and he was helping the Washington people by translating for them and showing them around. In fact, virtually all of our embassy was out of Mauritius. But you know, it’s events like that when you realize what a good thing it is to have a diplomatic presence all over the world.
I’ll skip all the gruesome details except for one because this is well worth telling. We’d convinced the Comorans to set up a makeshift morgue in what was meatpacking plant because it was the only place that was cool. We were going to bring the bodies back to America, of course, in the coffins that I had either bought or brought with me and, fortunately and sadly, the Israelis are really experts at taking care of their people who get killed. Now the Jews don’t do embalming but still the Israelis that came helped with very basic embalming and they asked us, they’d come on a small plane, could they put their bodies on our plane too because we had decided to stop in Nairobi on the way back where there was proper embalming available. Now this is where it gets sad and interesting.
The Comorans were supposed to come with a truck to take the Israeli bodies and the American bodies from the meatpacking plant to the airport and we were then going to load them on our plane and go off to Nairobi. The truck doesn’t come and the truck doesn’t come. Finally it’s the damnedest sight I saw in my entire career. Finally, up comes a dump truck and in that dump truck you see an orthodox rabbi bowing and praying and chanting over the bodies, the Israelis were in body bags, our people, including the wife of a Freetown FSN [Foreign Service National, an employee of the U.S. embassy], were in coffins.
What had happened is the Comorans had welshed and they’d never brought a truck. So the Israelis, being Israelis, had bribed a dump truck driver to stop and take the coffins and everything. They got to the airport and then the French, for whatever reason I can’t imagine, refused to give us the conveyor belt which belonged to I guess Air France to load the plane. So we had to take the stairs, you know, these ordinary stairs that you push up to the airplane, take them, move them to the dump truck, jack them down and put the bodies in the coffins one by one on the stairs then push the stairs to the airplane hold and push the bodies into the hold.
“You tell that general that the American Ambassador has told you to get the fuck off of his island now”
Now, our security people were getting more and more nervous because the Israelis were doing their darnedest to poke all around the airplane. I mean, obviously the Israelis, some of the Israelis were from the Mossad and our security people wanted to get out as quickly as they could.
However, there was a brigadier general in the NSC [National Security Council] who was being very stubborn and he said you can’t stop in Nairobi, it’s a deviation from your flight plan, blah, blah, blah and Mary Ryan, the Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs and the pilot, who was an Air Force reservist, came to me and they said we’ve got to get out. Mary, may she rest in peace, was most worried about what really mattered — that the bodies were decomposing as the NSC bureaucrat did his thing.
The pilot was nervous, he was an Air Force captain, he didn’t know what was going on and was very worried. So I did something I never did before and never did again.
I said to the pilot, “You tell that general that the American Ambassador has told you to get the fuck off of his island now.” No, I said actually “to get the fuck out of his country right now.” And he said, “Yes sir, yes sir.” And we did it.
This was madness, it was bureaucratic madness.
What really got to me, what was heartbreaking is that one of the people who was killed was a young woman, a first-tour CIA junior officer, a lovely girl. I had her effects, I had her wallet with her Virginia driver’s license. The idea that these bodies were rotting because of some jerk general at the National Security Council was, well, that’s why I said, “Get the fuck out of my country.”
About two weeks later I got a call from Mary, Mary Ryan, saying that this general was making a great deal of trouble for the Air Force pilot and could I please confirm in writing what I had done. So I sent the whole story in and I sent it in.
I must say, rather matter-of-factly and, of course, typical State Department, I had two calls from people saying, “My, my, this ambassadorship seems to have gone to your head, Harry.” What else would you expect but second guessing? But that was fine, I’d do it again 50 times over.
It was a couple of nuts [who hijacked the plane]. It was nothing political at all, it was some goofy kids and they apparently didn’t have more than fire axes and fire extinguishers and they seized control of the airplane and didn’t even know where they wanted to go. That was what was so awful. These were Ethiopians; the plane had originated somewhere else, I forgot where, and it stopped in Addis and on Addis these youngsters, I think they were in their early 20s, had gotten on and seized control of it. I mean, that’s what’s so tragic. All of these things are tragic but this utter farce ended with most of the people being killed.