Hijacked to Cuba

At the beginning of the school year, Groton students were prompted with a trivia question: which faculty member was aboard a hijacked plane? As it turns out, the answer is Andy Anderson, and the story behind this answer is wilder than one might think.  On New Year’s Eve of 1984, Sr. Anderson was flying home from vacation on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.  As he was looking around during the flight, he noticed a stewardess walking quickly from the back of the plane to the front, and entering the pilot’s cabin.  She was crying.  “I remember thinking, ‘That’s strange,’” said Sr. Anderson.  A few minutes later, the pilot announced over the loudspeaker that there was a man on board who wanted to go to Cuba instead of New York.  He said this very calmly and serenely.  The pilot acted politely towards the man because “he didn’t want to get the guy angry,” said Sr. Anderson.  Later, the pilot made another announcement saying that the man was very insistent about going to Cuba, and that they were going to follow his wishes.  This man was the hijacker.  After the announcement, the plane, heading north, turned around and headed south for Cuba.

Sr. Anderson heard the pilot’s voice over the intercom again.  The pilot said that the man wanted everyone to put their hands on the seats in front of them and to put their heads down.  The man started walking down the aisles of the plane after the announcement, and as he was doing this, Sr. Anderson caught a glimpse of him.  He had a gun in each hand and two in his belt.  The man looked around the cabin; Sr. Anderson wondered if there was something he wanted from the passengers.  Apparently there wasn’t, because after walking past, the hijacker entered the pilot’s cabin.  At this point the passengers were very nervous and afraid, but all they could do was wait.

The plane ended up landing in Havana, Cuba where the hijacker was escorted off the plane by Cuban soldiers. “They were very nice to us,” Sr. Anderson said about the Cubans.  Even though it was supposed to be closed for New Year’s Eve, the Cubans opened the airport, including all of the restaurants. The restaurants served the passengers for free as well.  After the plane was thoroughly checked for anything dangerous and refueled, it took off for New York again.  When Sr. Anderson and his friends landed at 4 a.m., everyone on the plane was interviewed by the F.B.I..  The F.B.I. wanted to make sure that nobody else aboard the plane had malicious intentions; fortunately, no one did.  A few days after returning home, Sr. Anderson learned the full story behind the hijacking.

The hijacker, identified as Ishmael La Beet, had been arrested in 1972 for shooting and killing eight American tourists at Fountain Valley Golf Course in St. Croix.  He was sentenced to life in prison in America, but he appealed his case and flew to the Virgin Islands.  After the hearing, which found him guilty, he was sent back to prison in America.  He happened to be on the same flight as Sr. Anderson, a DC-10 on its way to New York with 198 passengers.  He had two air marshals escorting him on the plane but La Beet had managed to steal their guns, and had them lying down in the aisle when he expressed his wishes to go to Cuba.  The only problem with the hijacker’s escape was that Cuba had just recently signed a treaty saying that they wouldn’t harbor skyjackers in their country.  And so, after being taken into custody by Cuban officials, La Beet was sent back to the U.S., and back to a life in prison.

“The story is much longer than that,” Sr. Anderson said. “Maybe I’ll tell the whole story in a chapel talk this year.”  He says that he hasn’t told the whole story in years, and that it’s “definitely due to be told again.”   Many would have to agree on that.

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