On November 23, 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines B-767 aircraft en route from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Nairobi, Kenya, was hijacked by three Ethiopian males. The aircraft carried 163 passengers and 12 crew members from over 35 nations. The hijacking occurred at approximately 11:20 a.m. (zulu) in Ethiopian airspace. Approximately 20 minutes into the flight, the three Ethiopian males separately approached the cockpit from the rear of the aircraft. At least two of them had been in the lavatory before the aircraft took off. One of the men ran down the aisle toward the cockpit shouting statements that could not be understood, and his two accomplices followed soon after. The hijackers were described as young (mid-twenties), inexperienced, psychologically fragile, and intoxicated. They were clean shaven and dressed in Western clothes, and one wore a black stocking cap which covered his face.
When the three men reached the cockpit, one or more forced their way in. After 15 minutes, the co-pilot had been beaten and forced from the flight deck. The hijackers were armed with a fire extinguisher and small fire ax, and they threatened to blow up the plane with a bomb. The hijackers announced on the intercom in Amharic, French, and broken English that they were "opponents" of the Ethiopian government seeking political asylum and had recently been released from prison. They stated they were changing the direction of the aircraft and threatened to blow it up if interfered with. It was later discovered that their "bomb" was a covered, unopened bottle of liquor.
The hijackers instructed the pilot to fly to Australia at an altitude of 39,000 feet, saying they knew that the aircraft could reach that destination since it could fly 11 hours. During the course of the hijacking, however, arguments erupted as the pilot tried to convince the three men that the plane was running out of fuel.
Two of the hijackers remained in the cockpit, while the third man was posted outside the door. During the four-hour ordeal, the hijackers were primarily interested in keeping firm control of the cockpit area, and they never returned to other sections of the aircraft. Occasionally, however, the two men in the cockpit met with their accomplice. The hijackers appeared uninterested in the passengers as long as they kept away from the cockpit. No interaction existed between the hijackers and passengers; passports, identity papers, or nationalities were not requested. The mood of the hijacking was unusual in that the passengers carried on their normal activities of eating, reading, sleeping, and conversing quietly without interference.
The passengers had the impression that the hijackers were unprepared and not well rehearsed. The consensus among the passengers was that an assault against the hijackers would be safer when the aircraft landed for refueling rather than in flight because of the risk of provoking the three men to detonate the explosive device. Escaping out the emergency exits once the aircraft had landed to refuel was also part of the passengers' planning. Overall, the passengers were calm; however, they were unaware of arguments between the pilot and the hijackers regarding the aircraft's destination and dwindling fuel reserves. The passengers, furthermore, had no idea of the direction of the aircraft and only guessed it had taken a southern route to eastern Zaire.
The pilot was flying south along the east coast of Africa instead of east over the Indian Ocean toward Australia as instructed by the hijackers. Three and one-half hours into the flight, one engine ran out of fuel and stopped, causing the aircraft to drop from 39,000 to 25,000 feet. Upon realizing that their instructions had not been followed, the hijackers reacted strongly by threatening the pilot, who thought the hijackers would detonate the explosive device or take some other extreme action. The pilot then made the first of only two communications to the passengers during the ordeal, informing them of the fuel shortage and the loss of an engine. His further instructions were to maintain calm and prepare for an emergency landing by securely putting on, but not inflating, life jackets.
The reaction of the passengers to these instructions ranged from calm to panic. In the business class section, the search for life jackets was initiated by a passenger. While the flight attendants assisted those who were distraught, the passenger located the life jackets in an unmarked metal box Iying between the seats and assisted in distributing them.
The plane continued to lose altitude and began to sway. A few passengers stood up motioning an intent to confront the hijackers, but the rest of the passengers urged against the action. Much of this time was consumed by instructions being exchanged between passengers and crew on proper use of the life jackets. Despite the crew's instructions, sounds of life jackets being inflated could be heard throughout of the aircraft.
Soon after his first communication to the passengers, the pilot make his second and final announcement instructing passengers to assume a pre-crash position. This involved their bending forward with pillows on their heads in order to brace for a hard landing. The passengers' reactions were the same as earlier, varying from calm to panic. At least one flight attendant prayed on the floor, and a father held three children in his lap. One physically large passenger again urged that the hijackers be attacked, but the consensus among other passengers remained that such action would result in everyone's death. The pilot signed off by stating that the passengers knew the hijackers were responsible and implied that if the hijackers survived, the passengers would be able to identify them.
By now, the aircraft had run out of fuel, the second engine had stopped, and the plane continued to lose altitude. Electricity was out and the cabin became dark and quiet. The plane was approaching the Comoros Islands. The pilot had been given clearance to land at Moroni Airport, Grand Comoro, but he knew the plane would not reach it. He tried to land the plane in the water near the Galawa seaside resort. The hijackers, however, realizing that they had failed, attempted to take control of the instruments. They wanted to turn the hijacking into a suicide mission by crashing into the resort. The struggle in the cockpit between the pilot and a hijacker was evident as the aircraft, gliding at 200 miles per hour without flaps down, approached the water. Presumably, a wing tip skimmed the water, which caused the plane to overturn at least once and break into three segments. The plane crashed 500 yards from the resort and 16 miles from Moroni Airport; 123 of the 175 passengers and crew died. The majority of the survivors were hanging on to the fuselage section, which was floating; the rear section of the plane was submerged. Many victims were killed as a direct result of the impact, or they drowned because their inflated life jackets prevented them from swimming out of the water-filled fuselage. The pilot and copilot survived but the hijackers did not. Two suspects were initially detained but were not identified by the survivors as the hijackers and were released.
Several boats and small vessels were immediately sent from the resort to the crash site. The resort's open air restaurant was turned into a triage station staffed by ten vacationing French and South African doctors, and patients were later sent to Moroni Hospital. Looting of the wreckage and victims by some locals also took place.
Flight 961 was one of the deadliest hijackings in history. From 1990-1995, ten hijackings took place in Ethiopia by Ethiopians seeking political asylum and escape from poverty conditions in their country. However, only one injury resulted from these hijackings, and all the hijackers surrendered to authorities when the incidents were safely over. Flight 961 is significant in that it validates a continued threat to civil aviation in a region where air carrier activity has increased substantially in recent years. The threat against air carriers in the area is also heightened by the hijackers' change to lethal tactics not demonstrated in previous incidents.