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News Reporter Remembers TWA355 Hijack

by Terry Hart

Interesting the flood of memories that came over me while coming across a news story on social media from Gander Airport Historical Society about hijacking of a Trans World Airlines flight in the United States that eventually ended up in Gander and on to Europe.

I remember just starting a couple of weeks vacation. It was a Friday night, September 10th 1976 when I received a telephone call from Canadian Press in Halifax. They told me there was a hijacking taking place involving the United States where a Trans World Airlines flight enroute from New York City to Chicago was taken over by 5 "Fighters for Free Croatia,"a group seeking Croatia independence from Yugoslavia.

The Canadian Press reporter told me the aircraft was being redirected to Montreal by the hijackers and that it was their intent to fly to Gander and then on to Europe with 81 passengers on board. The hijackers claimed to have a bomb on board TWA flight, plus explosives taped to their bodies.  

So I immediately left my home in Grand Falls-Windsor on a dark but beautiful Friday night around 10 PM. I turned on the little yellow light on top of VOCM news vehicle for the trip to Gander International Airport to see what would unfold. If memory serves me correctly I might have passed a couple of RCMP cruisers on their way to Gander for same event. I often thought after maybe I went to fast, especially with moose near our highways.  

I got really lucky on a couple of fronts that night. First I called our station 590 VOCM St. John's to tell them I would be calling  from Gander International with live reports on what was transpiring. Little did I know that VOCM's General Manager, John Murphy, was covering the all night show for one of the announcers who was ill. That was a big break as John and I worked together for many years at VOCM stations covering Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor. The other break was while I was trying to acquire access through RCMP security at the airport I stopped into Hotel Gander to make some calls, and who should be working late that night was owner/manager, Bruce Sparkes, who was a friend that I had known for many years. Bruce immediately provided me access to an office and phone where I could do live reports until I got approval to get through airport security.

After doing a number of reports I did get to the airport where I continued covering the event going live with John Murphy, who provided me with whatever time I needed to do the reports. The TWA flight did land in Gander shortly after midnight from Montreal. It parked in a secure location to await the arrival of another larger aircraft from TWA in New York City to make the flight to Europe.  

The hijacked aircraft was in Gander for most of night and next morning. Gander International was crawling with RCMP and other security from all over. I do remember RCMP Inspector Vaughn, who was flown in from Ottawa, to coordinate security, coming to me and telling me the hijackers wanted to talk to local media and they would like for me to be that contact. I initially said, "Come on guys, I'm not going out there on the ramp if the plane has a bomb and they are taped with explosives!" I guess I was scared. Inspector Vaughn asked me again and I said OK but before I could get in the RCMP vehicle to go on ramp the hijackers changed their mind and said they were moving on to Europe once the second aircraft arrived from New York City.

The second aircraft did arrived around 5 AM and before long the two planes left for Europe with stops to refuel in Iceland. They were denied permission to land in London, and it was off to Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris, where the hijackers eventually surrendered. Police in Paris found out the hijackers claim of a bomb on board, along with other explosives on TWA flight were false.  However, they did plant a bomb in a locker at Grand Central Station in New York City and when police arrived to defuse the bomb, it went off killing one police officer and seriously injuring another.

Before leaving Gander International the hijackers did allow about 35 of the 81 passengers on board to leave the aircraft. I immediately interviewed some of them about the experience which was carried by news outlets all over the world.  

It was also quite the experience for me, a great way to start a couple of weeks vacation. It was really remarkable the fantastic job air traffic controllers, RCMP and other airport officials did that night in handling this critical situation. That's only one of many international stories that unfolded at the Gander airport that I covered over the years.  

 

Contributed by Terry Hart - Retired Broadcaster

 


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