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Monday, November 25, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`I Thought I Had Finished My Life' -- Tale Depicts Drunken Abductors Who Fought With Pilot -- Survivors Tell Of Terror As Jetliner Tumbles Across Ocean's Surface

AP: Washington Post

There were screams as the plane hit the water, a deafening explosion as the cabin broke up, then a few seconds of silence before Takahiko Sugiyama began his desperate struggle for survival.

The Japanese aid worker grimaced in pain today as he recounted his story from the Nairobi, Kenya, hospital bed where he is recovering from Saturday's Indian Ocean crash landing of a hijacked plane.

"When I heard the captain say he had decided on a crash landing, I thought I had finished my life," Sugiyama, 56, said.

"It was the kind of panic you see in the movies," says Sugiyama. "Some were crying, some were praying."

He blacked out when the plane slammed into the sea and broke into three pieces.

"I think I must have lost consciousness," Sugiyama said. "Then I felt the water coming in. I realized I was alive."

"I was afraid of sharks," he said with a laugh that made him wince from his chest wounds. "I could see the beach, and I was sure then I would be rescued."

Within five minutes, Sugiyama was picked up by European tourists in a sports-fishing boat. "I was lucky, I could hear people screaming `Help! Help! Help!' "

Sugiyama was among 52 people who survived when the Ethiopian Airways Boeing 767, which left the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa en route to the Ivory Coast, ditched off the Comoros Islands. Four of the survivors later died; 123 other passengers are assumed dead.

Today, recovery workers dragged a large section of the wreckage up on the resort beach.

The remains of some of the victims could be seen in the section of fuselage. Workers wore masks to deter the smell in the tropical heat.

Recovered bodies were zipped into dark bags and hauled to an ambulance for transport to a makeshift morgue set up in a former government meat warehouse.

Survivors of a ditching in shallow water, off a resort beach on the Comoros Islands, told a frightening tale of drunken hijackers who fought with the pilot and did not believe him - or did not care - when he said the plane didn't have enough fuel to fly to Australia.

The pilot, co-pilot and three Americans were among the survivors. Two of the three hijackers were thought to have survived, but officials later denied that report.

Franklin Huddle, the U.S. consul general in Bombay, spoke from his hospital bed on Reunion, a French island he and other American survivors were flown to after the crash.

"My guess is they didn't really have any . . . (weapons), but who knows?" he said. One of the hijackers was brandishing a bottle of whiskey, Huddle added.

Huddle said he and his wife, Chanya Huddle, were headed for vacation near Nairobi, Kenya. The hijacking began about half an hour after the plane took off, he said, when the hijackers began running down the aisle. The jetliner flew for 2 1/2 more hours before running out of fuel.

At the end, Huddle said, several large passengers suggested attempting to overpower the hijackers, but by then the jet was descending fast. One hijacker struggled for the controls, Huddle said, adding that he believed the men intended as a last act to dive the plane into a resort hotel.

"It's interesting what goes through your mind when the plane goes down. At the last second, my wife suggested eating a peanut-butter sandwich because we might not eat for a while after we were rescued," he said. "I'm a former pilot so I know what it's like to ditch planes over water. I thought we were going to go down for the count."

The plane hit the water once smoothly, then again at what felt like a 70-mph auto crash, then again at what seemed like a 90-mph crash, then stopped, Huddle said. He and his wife were "popped out into the water. The plane basically broke apart. . . . I was swimming in the water with a foot that was basically flayed in half."

He and his wife were picked up in a small boat; even wind surfers were out in the ocean attempting to rescue survivors, Huddle said.

Third American survived

In addition to the Huddles, a third American was known to have survived - a private citizen still unidentified. Diplomatic sources also indicated that another U.S. diplomat, said to be a midlevel official at the embassy in Addis Ababa, had perished in the crash. The State Department would not comment.

Top African television cameraman Mohamed Amin was among the passengers who died, Reuters reported. Amin, 53, of Reuters Television, won acclaim for bringing Ethiopia's disastrous 1984 famine to the eyes of the world.

The hijackers rejected the pleas of Capt. Leul Abate to let him land the jet safely at an airport in Moroni.

"He wanted to go there, but they wouldn't let him," co-pilot Yonas Mekuria told The Associated Press from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for cuts and bruises.

"I guess they understood it," the co-pilot said of the fuel shortage. "But they didn't give a damn."

Prison escapees

The men pushed flight attendants aside and stormed the cockpit, beating the co-pilot and forcing him out. As passengers listened in terror, they spewed threats in three languages over the jet's public-address system.

"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,' " Ethiopian passenger Bisrat Alemu said. Beyond that, no motive for the hijacking was provided.

One hijacker seemed drunk, and waved a bottle of whiskey apparently taken from a beverage cart on the plane, said co-pilot Mekuria.

For three hours, Abate guided the jetliner and tried to reason with the hijackers, asking that he be allowed to land in the Seychelles or the Comoros Islands to refuel.

Finally, the pilot went on the public-address system to announce that the jet was running out of fuel.

One engine had stopped and the other would shortly, the pilot told the passengers. He was going to try to ditch the plane in the sea.

The hijackers fought the pilot for control of the aircraft in the last minutes aloft, the co-pilot said. "They were interfering with procedures, grabbing at the instruments. They snatched the radio (cord) from the jack," he said.

"People were screaming," Alemu said. "Some were praying."

"We knew we were going to land in the sea. We already knew that we were going to die," said N.B. Surti, a passenger from Bombay.

Survivors said a wing clipped the water. Then the body of the plane slammed into the sea, bouncing and flipping at least once before it broke apart.

Some swam to shore

Because the pilot had managed to bring the airliner down so close to shore, tourists and island residents were able to reach the survivors quickly. When Surti struggled out of the water filling the aircraft, rescuers already had surrounded the jet.

Some passengers managed to swim to shore, while others bobbed in azure waters as sunbathing tourists rushed off the palm-fringed Le Galawa beach to help.

Mekuria said that after the landing he pulled the injured pilot out of the cockpit and stayed with him in the water until they were rescued.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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