The Dead Man’s Gambit: The crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961
On the 23rd of November 1996, three men stormed the cockpit of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767, beat the First Officer, and demanded that the Captain fly the plane — and everyone in it — to the far-off land of Australia. Unable to convince the hijackers that the wide body jet did not have enough fuel to cross the Indian Ocean, Captain Leul Abate was forced to turn his plane out to sea, and toward an uncertain fate, lest the unstable and intoxicated attackers kill him and his passengers. Running out of fuel and struggling against his increasingly erratic captors, he made for the remote archipelago of the Comoros Islands, off the coast of southeast Africa, hoping to land — but the men, slipping into a state of nihilistic despair, had decided to embark on a suicide mission instead. When they prevented him from reaching the islands’ sole international airport, Leul Abate was left with only one choice: to ditch the crippled 767 in the ocean off the coast of Grand Comore.
In a dramatic emergency landing caught on camera by beach-going tourists, the jet skimmed the water, dug in, cartwheeled, and disintegrated catastrophically, throwing debris high into the air. Although locals and tourists rushed to the scene to help the survivors, most of those aboard never escaped the ruined and sinking airplane: of the 175 passengers and crew, only 50 would survive. Among the survivors were both pilots, who — with the help of the black boxes — were able to relate the harrowing story of their struggle against a band of hijackers who seemed to place no value on human lives, whether their own or others’. And through it all shone the particular bravery of Leul Abate, a pilot who was forced into an impossible situation, yet resisted until the end, doing his utmost to save his passengers not from any aeronautical emergency, but from the raw evil of his fellow man.
In 1991, following years of drought and famine, rebel forces toppled Ethiopia’s ruling regime, known as the Derg, ending the 17-year reign of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. This turbulent period brought great hardship to much of the country, and the state-owned flag carrier Ethiopian Airlines was not spared from the political unrest. Although the airline was at that time one of only a tiny handful of African carriers certified to meet United States safety standards (a status that would later come into question), its security standards were another matter entirely. According to various sources, Ethiopian Airlines experienced no less than 10 hijackings or attempted hijackings between 1991 and 1996, while the Los Angeles Times lists 17 hijackings “involving Ethiopians,” many of which were perpetrated by former soldiers, loyal to the ousted Derg, who saw no path forward but to flee the country. Others may have been carried out by individuals seeking to escape abject poverty, although details are scant.
At that time, Ethiopian Airlines didn’t maintain anywhere near as large a fleet as they do today, and by some stroke of bad luck, several of those hijackings happened to involve the same man. Aged 42 in 1996, Captain Leul Abate had been flying for Ethiopian Airlines for many years, and had spent time in the cockpit of virtually every type of airplane the company had operated to date, from the 20-passenger DHC-6 Twin Otter all the way up to the Boeing 767, Ethiopian’s first wide body aircraft. Prior to 1996, Leul* was hijacked twice while flying these aircraft, in which he was forced to fly to Kenya and Sudan, respectively. No one was hurt in either incident, but both would pale in comparison to what was to come.
*NOTE: In Ethiopia, surnames are not normally used. Each name consists of a given name, by which a person is known, and a patronymic, which is the name of their father. Thus “Abate” refers to Leul Abate’s father, not him, and it is correct to call him “Leul.”
By November 1996, Leul had graduated to the rank of Captain on the 767, and of 11,500 total flying hours, he had 4,000 on type, rendering him quite familiar with the aircraft. With such experience on a very small fleet, he and other Ethiopian Airlines pilots were so well acquainted with the 767s that they knew each one by a nickname — including one nine-year-old plane, ET-AIZ, which pilots called “Zulu,” after the NATO alphabet designation for Z, the last letter of its registration.
It was this aircraft that Leul Abate was scheduled to fly on a routine multi-stop trip across Africa on the 23rd of November, 1996. The route, designated flight 961, provided critical service between a string of countries spanning the continent, with stops in Nairobi, Kenya; Brazzaville, Republic of Congo; and Lagos, Nigeria; before concluding with a leg to Abidjan, capital of Côte d’Ivoire. Also rostered on the flight was a fairly experienced First Officer, Yonas Mekuria, who had over 6,500 total hours, including 3,000 on the 767.
With the two pilots, a mechanic, nine cabin crew, and 163 passengers on board, flight 961 departed Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at 11:09 a.m. local time, turned south toward Nairobi, and climbed normally to its cruising altitude of 39,000 feet. There was no sign that anything was amiss — certainly none of those aboard could possibly have known that three of the passengers had no intention whatsoever of flying to Kenya.
Twenty minutes after takeoff, around the time the flight was leveling out at 39,000 feet, passengers suddenly spotted two men running up the aisle from the rear lavatory, with a third man following up behind. One of the men made their intentions immediately clear: “Everybody should be seated,” he shouted, “I have a bomb!”
Flight 961 was about to become Leul Abate’s third, and most dramatic, hijacking.
As the flight attendants retreated, abruptly cancelling their drinks service, the hijackers entered the forward galley, opened the unsecured cockpit door, and burst onto the flight deck. The hijackers declared that there were eleven in their party (there were in fact only three, which was obvious enough to everyone); grabbed a fire extinguisher and a crash axe from their stowage area; and beat First Officer Yonas Mekuria bloody, forcing him to flee the cockpit. Only now, fully armed and with Leul alone in the cockpit, did the hijackers issue their sole demand: that he turn the plane out to sea and fly to Australia.
Leul was taken aback by the request. The problem was immediately evident: they had nowhere near enough fuel to make a transoceanic flight. In fact, in order to save weight, and thus improve efficiency, airliners normally carry only a minimum amount of fuel required by law, consisting of enough to reach the destination, plus extra for various contingencies, typically thirty minutes of holding plus a diversion to a designated alternate, with a minimum reserve still remaining, although the exact requirements vary. Therefore, for the approximately two hour flight to Nairobi, the crew had uplifted only about three and a half hours of fuel, which would not get them even half way to Australia. Leul attempted to explain that they would have to stop for more fuel before he could comply with the hijackers’ request, perhaps in Mombasa, Kenya, but to his surprise, they refused to believe him. Instead, one of the hijackers retrieved a copy of the Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazine “Selamta,” which contained specifications for the company’s Boeing 767s, and pointed out that according to the publication, the 767–200ER could stay in the air for up to 11 hours. Leul spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain that the 11-hour figure is only achievable with a full fuel load, and he attempted to demonstrate using the fuel quantity indicating system, with a comparison between their actual fuel load and what an 11-hour fuel load ought to look like. And yet, despite his conscientious and respectful efforts, the hijackers remained convinced that he was bluffing — that his proposal to stop for fuel in Mombasa was in fact a trap to hand them over to the authorities. If he didn’t fly directly to Australia, they insisted, they would blow up the plane and everyone in it.
By now, enough time had passed for the passengers and crew to begin taking stock of their captors. Although they appeared to be from the Horn of Africa, the men spoke French to one another, which is uncommon in Ethiopia, and they were dressed in Western clothing. Only one wore any sort of face covering. They did not appear to have any weapons, other than the fire extinguisher and fire axe, as well as several bottles of whiskey; one of the hijackers was wearing a large glove that he claimed concealed a bomb, but Leul was unconvinced. Still, many of the passengers did believe the threats, and even if the bomb was fake, that hardly made any difference for Leul — after all, they could kill or incapacitate him with the fire axe at any time, in which case they would be in equally deep trouble. Open defiance of the hijackers was therefore out of the question, but if he complied with their demands and turned toward Australia now, they would likely end up lost at sea with little hope of rescue.
Instead of taking either of these fatal courses of action, Leul decided that the best thing to do was to keep the hijackers talking, allowing the situation to stay balanced on the knife-edge. Keeping calm, he explained that he would need to tell air traffic control that they were deviating, at which point he was able to inform Addis Ababa area control that flight 961 had been hijacked and was being asked to fly to Australia, but did not have enough fuel to get there. He also began turning the plane toward the coast, maintaining a south-southeasterly heading of 170˚, but with no intention of going over the ocean.
Meanwhile, two of the hijackers left the cockpit and returned to the cabin, where they confronted the flight attendants and demanded to make a passenger announcement. After receiving a brief primer on how to use the public address system, the hijackers announced, in English, French, and Amharic, that they had taken over the plane, that they were opponents of the Ethiopian government who had escaped or been released from prison (witness accounts vary on which word was used), and that they had a bomb and “would not hesitate to use it” if the passengers tried to interfere. Notably, they did not bring up their intention to divert to Australia.
Up in the cockpit, the lead hijacker had remained with Leul, and now demanded that he call the phone number for the Ethiopian Airlines General Sales Agent Office in Australia, which was listed on an Ethiopian Airlines flight timetable. Leul explained that there was no telephone on board, and that he would have to get air traffic control to relay the message; fortunately, the hijackers consented, which gave him the opportunity to provide more information about the situation.
Calling Nairobi center, as they were now over Kenya, Leul said, “Nairobi, Ethiopian 961.”
“Ethiopian 961, Nairobi Center, go ahead,” the controller replied. Major air traffic control centers in Kenya had already been informed of the hijacking by their counterparts in Ethiopia.
“Nairobi, Ethiopian 961, we have a message for Australia please,” said Leul.
“Go ahead,” the controller said. There was no immediate reply, so he repeated, “Ethiopian 961, go ahead with your message.”
For four minutes, there was silence on the frequency, and then Leul transmitted, “All stations, all stations, I have a telephone relay to Australia. This is Ethiopian 961, Australia telephone number is 032647346, Australia telephone number 022647346, and Ethiopian 961 proceeding to Australia presently on course to Mike Oscar Victor. Thank you.”
“Ethiopian 961, confirm Australia telephone number 032647346?” Nairobi asked.
“Negative, 022647346, 022647346, this is Australia telephone number,” Leul repeated. “And we are flight level 390, fuel on board is two hours right now, fuel on board two hours, heading to Mike Oscar Victor.”
Leul and the Nairobi controller again confirmed their flight level and the telephone number, after which Nairobi Center asked, “Ethiopian 961, Nairobi Center, confirm you are going to land Australia?”
“Gentleman, we can’t make Australia,” said Leul. “We have only two hours of fuel, we can’t make it to Australia — we will have to make a water landing.”
Alarmed by this turn of events, the controller now asked, “Ethiopian 961, confirm you can’t divert to Mombasa?”
“They refused to land anywhere other than Australia, so we have no choice,” Leul replied. “Except when [we’ve] finished our fuel, we will land on water,” he added, as much for the hijackers as for air traffic control.
“But with two hours of fuel, you can’t make Australia, why don’t you land Mombasa?” the controller asked again.
“Okay just a minute,” Leul said. He now switched the radio over to the cockpit speakers so that the hijackers could hear both sides of the conversation. Shortly thereafter, he announced again, “All stations, do you read?”
“Go ahead, said Nairobi.
“Okay, I just wanted our hijackers to hear what you are communicating and if you have anything to say, go ahead and tell them,” said Leul.
“Okay, I am advising you that with two hours of fuel you will be unable to reach your destination and probably you will have to land on the water. The best solution is for you to land in Mombasa. Go ahead,” said the controller. Thirty seconds later, with no reply having come from the plane, he repeated, “The hijackers of Ethiopian 961, if you have copied, go ahead.”
“Waiting to talk, standby,” said Leul. Moments later, he replied, “Okay, they say they don’t want to talk, they are not willing to negotiate on any terms.”
“Roger, roger, Ethiopian 961, check Australia is more than six hours flight and you have only two hours fuel. You will most probably ditch in the ocean. why don’t you land Mombasa and pick some more fuel?” the controller asked again.
“They say negative, this is the captain speaking, ah…” Leul replied
After almost a minute of silence, the controller called again. “Ethiopian 961, Nairobi Center?”
“Go ahead,” said Leul.
“Ethiopian 961, we suggest you land Mombasa, then pick up fuel to allow you to reach Australia. Please land in Mombasa, land in Mombasa,” said the controller.
“Negative, they say negative, they say negative, impossible,” Leul replied.
“Roger, roger, do you have another alternate apart from Australia?” the controller asked.
“There is no alternate other than Australia,” Leul repeated. “No alternate.”
“Advise us when you expect to reach Australia. ETA Australia,” the controller said.
“We have two hours of fuel, two hours of fuel,” Leul repeated.
For four minutes, there were no further transmissions. Then at 12:18, the controller again asked if they could land in Mombasa, to which the answer remained “negative.” Nairobi center than called yet again at 12:25, stating, “Ethiopian 961, check with your remaining fuel you will be unable to reach Australia and most probably you will ditch in the ocean?”
“Yeah, that is what they are saying,” said Leul.
Momentarily abandoning his professional phraseology, the controller asked, with dramatic flair, “Confirm they are ready to land in the ocean and drown?” There was no reply, so the controller again said, “Ethiopian 961, do you have another alternate aerodrome where you can proceed other than Australia, any other alternate aerodrome, please advise.”
“I have no alternate aerodrome, sir, I am in a very tight corner,” Leul said.
On board the plane, the lead hijacker decided that the discussion had gone on long enough, so he ripped away Leul’s headset and sunglasses. There would be no further communications between flight 961 and Nairobi Center, despite the controller’s repeated attempts to contact the flight.
Nevertheless, Leul Abate continued to steer the 767 down the east coast of Africa, past Mombasa and toward the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, maintaining various headings between 160˚ and 175˚. The hijackers seemed bored; some of them were drinking duty-free alcohol stolen from the galley, and the leader was sitting in the first officer’s seat, fiddling idly with the controls. At some point he again asked Leul to call Australia, at which point the Captain attempted to relay the request via company radio, and then to the ATC center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. But the hijackers had been clear about the inadmissibility of talking to air traffic control, so the lead hijacker again ripped away Leul’s headset, after which no controller would ever hear from flight 961 again. And to make matters worse, the hijackers had had enough of what they perceived as Captain Leul’s games: it was at that point that, in spite of Leul’s attempts to explain that they were almost out of fuel, they ordered him to turn the plane out to sea.
Had they turned over the ocean an hour earlier, it would have been a death sentence, but by now they had come far enough south that the sea was no longer empty. Southeast of Tanzania, between the African coast and the island of Madagascar, lay a chain of volcanic isles comprising the independent nation of the Comoros, a tiny country of some 850,000 people spread across three mountainous islands half way between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. Captain Leul would later state that he had never heard of the Comoros before flight 961, but that they showed up on his atlas, and that was good enough. The airport in the Comorian capital of Moroni even had a runway long enough for a 767 — if the hijackers would let him land there, which was a major “if.”
It was sometime around this point that the cockpit voice recording began, with approximately 30 minutes of fuel remaining. With the plane en route to the Comoros, Captain Leul was busily arguing with the drunken and at times incoherent hijackers. It is thought that two of them were in the cockpit, with the leader in the First Officer’s seat, while the third hijacker stood guard in the cabin.
“May I broadcast to the passengers?” Leul could be heard asking at the start of the recording.
“No,” said the hijacker.
“What I would tell them is — hijacker, look here — at this very moment, since it has been beyond my responsibility, the aircraft is bound to crash,” said Leul. He was hoping that if he could not land, he could at least help the passengers prepare for the inevitable water landing.
“Do you want to die?” the hijacker threatened.
“We are going to die anyway,” said Leul.
“Therefore, do you want us to kill you?” the hijacker replied. “Starting now we are in agreement aren’t we? No more talk. What have we said upon departure, we don’t break promises, never have, we let it go as far as it can reach, then [unintelligible] isn’t it?”
Several more unintelligible statements followed, then a period of silence. Several minutes later, the hijacker broke that silence with an ominous reminder: “Don’t worry,” he said, “the axe is with me.”
“Please, at least let us make a controlled landing,” Leul said.
In the background, two hijackers could be heard conversing. “Leave me behind here?” one of them repeatedly asked.
“Why? I don’t disembark. I will die along with him,” the lead hijacker said. “I will show him my courage. I don’t disembark alone, finished. We die alongside each other.”
(For unknown reasons, the lead hijacker had a habit of inserting the English word “finished” into various phrases, seemingly for emphasis.)
“So let me go to the passengers and face death along with them,” Leul said, still trying to argue for a passenger announcement.
“Why not die here?” the hijacker asked.
“Rather than dying with my eyes open,” Leul continued.
“From now I on, I said stop such talk, finished, no talking even while you die. You die silently finished. Is he crazy? It was decided down there on the ground. Finished,” the hijacker said.
About a minute later, the lead hijacker offered Leul some alcohol. “This is a bribe,” he said.
“What is this?” Leul asked, incredulous.
“Come on, start. It will be an appetizer,” the hijacker said. “To avoid panic, die drinking. What else can I do for you? I mean, you should not feel panicky.”
“What?” Leul said.
“We don’t have time, leave me alone please,” Leul insisted.
“You will drink more,” said the hijacker.
A minute passed. “I have given up hope,” the hijacker said. “This does not work and we will tell him [unintelligible].”
Leul said something unintelligible in reply.
“Does it suit you eh?” the hijacker said.
“It suits me. I prefer it to sitting here, arms crossed,” said Leul.
“What do you have with me?” Leul asked. “What grudge do you hold against me?”
“Together, together,” a hijacker said.
“You asked whether we will disembark, leaving you behind,” the lead hijacker replied. “We don’t do that. We gave you our word, we will die with you. We don’t intend to spare our lives exposing you to danger, isn’t it?”
“Now, rather than dying with my eyes open, I prefer to be among the passengers and die there,” said Leul.
“Even if you are going to die?” the hijacker asked.
“I prefer that anyway,” Leul said.
“You are very stubborn,” said the hijacker. “Leave me alone, no one else will consent to this. I envisage that we would reach…”
“Stop joking,” Leul said, presumably believing the next word to be “Australia.”
“Let me throw the axe then,” said the hijacker.
At that moment, a low fuel pressure warning sounded, filling the cockpit with a repetitive beeping sound. Seconds later, the right engine ran out of fuel and began to spool down. Unable to maintain 39,000 feet with power from only one engine, the plane began to descend.
“Why? How can’t it fly? When you die, all of us will be destroyed? Don’t joke,” said the hijacker. Then, watching the altitude slowly wind down, he said, “It is less by one thousand!”
“What is less?” Leul asked.
“The altitude,” said the hijacker.
“It will descend by itself. I am not making it descend,” said Leul.
“I told you…” the hijacker started to say.
“I am not the one who is descending it,” Leul repeated.
“I said I am telling you, finished,” the hijacker spat, becoming increasingly angry.
“As the engine stops it descends,” Leul explained, pointing to the red ‘engine flameout’ warning on his engine display. “Whether you like it or not, it is descending.”
“We will see about that,” the hijacker said.
At that point, apparently realizing that they really were going down, the hijackers left the cockpit to discuss privately amongst themselves and determine their next move. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Leul began an emergency announcement to the passengers: “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “This is your pilot. We have run out of fuel and we are losing one engine [at] this time, and we are expecting crash landing, and that is all I have to say. We have lost already one engine, and I ask all passengers to react to the hijackers. Thank you.”
His statement demonstrated incredible bravery. In asking the passengers to resist the hijackers, he was putting his own life in danger too, but it was clear that the hijackers would not let him land in Moroni unless they could be subdued.
Unfortunately, however, his call to action was ineffective. Although several passengers began urging others to help them confront the hijackers, the majority urged them not to, fearing that the hijackers would blow up the plane or otherwise cause it to crash. A plan had been developing in the cabin to open the emergency exits and flee the plane when they landed — they had believed up until then that they would land — and even after Leul’s announcement, many still did not recognize the severity of the situation they were in. Additionally, the announcement was made only in English, and many of the passengers, who hailed from 36 different countries, may not have understood. The end result was that the brave passengers who made abortive attempts to organize an uprising were forced to back down, and the hijackers soon returned to the cockpit, knocking the microphone out of Leul’s hand.
“It has been heard,” a hijacker said. “Remain there. Be there. Be there.”
“He is joking,” another hijacker said.
“Who?” Leul asked.
“It is descending,” the hijacker again pointed out.
The repetitive beeping sounded again — fuel pressure was now falling in their second engine.
“We are going to die,” Leul said again. “This is the only choice I have.”
“You will see what a man I am,” said the hijacker.
“We are dying,” Leul said. “At any cost we are dead, myself, you, and all of us are dead.”
The lead hijacker was now fighting with the controls, trying to make inputs using the yoke and attempting to pull the reverse thrust levers. “I will break it,” he threatened.
“Break it, go ahead and break it!” said Leul. “Don’t worry, I am not the one who is doing that.”
“Don’t move, listen, don’t move,” the hijacker said.
“Listen, I am a dead man,” said Leul. “I have had enough now!”
“Don’t move,” the hijacker again threatened.
“I am a dead man,” Leul repeated.
“Listen — ” the hijacker began.
“I am not applying any motion. The aircraft is doing it by itself,” Leul explained, referring to the descent.
“Hey, go,” the hijacker shouted.
“Oh please, you are doing the impossible?” Leul said, mocking the hijacker’s attempts to stop the plane from descending.
“So what shall we do?” the hijacker said. “What we do is fight.”
“I am not the one who is doing that,” Leul repeated.
“Descend, descend, I know, I will show you, descend descend,” the hijacker mocked. “it has reached 34 [thousand]. Finished.”
“We will descend to the water, I told you,” said Leul.
“Go, remain there, do you want to die, it is descending,” said the hijacker. “It is descending!”
“Who is it?” Leul asked.
“You are killing them all!” the hijacker accused.
By this point it was clear that Leul had had more than enough of the hijackers’ nonsense. “We are dead. There is nothing to it. It is all over, we will drop in the ocean,” he said.
“Thirty-one,” the hijacker said, again reading off their altitude.
“This is zero. This is also coming to zero,” said Leul, pointing to their fuel gauges.
“So let it be,” said the hijacker. “Descend, you are too bold, bold.”
“This is not a matter of boldness!” Leul snapped.
“Descend, I will show you. Wait, I know, I have decided where I will take action,” said the hijacker.
In the background, a flight attendant could be heard making an announcement in English: “Ladies and gentlemen, please sit down and fasten your seatbelts,” she said. “Don’t panic, please fasten your seat belts.”
In the cockpit, the hijacker abruptly grabbed the controls and disconnected the autopilot, sending the plane lurching up and down, left and right, reaching pitch angles between 3.3˚ nose up and 8.3˚ nose down, as well as bank angles between 47˚ right and 35˚ left. As he pulled the nose back, the plane also started to climb, but it lost speed dramatically and soon began descending again.
“Descend. You are such a liar,” said the hijacker. “It has come up to 29,000 feet.”
“I am not doing anything to it,” said Leul.
“Let us land on the water, at least in a manner we land on the ground,” Leul pleaded.
By this point, the island of Grande Comore, home to the city of Moroni and Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport, was clearly visible from the cockpit, and Captain Leul began to circle to the southwest of the island.
“Okay then,” said the hijacker. “Never think of landing at that country.”
“You didn’t understand. I land on water, not on land,” said Leul.
“Okay. Come over here. Move, release it,” the hijacker said, trying to get Leul to give up the controls.
“Not that way,” said Leul, fighting his attempts.
“Release it, release it!” the hijacker insisted.
“I won’t,” said Leul.
“I said release it, release — ”
“You didn’t understand, it is not proper — ”
“Release, release, this is half the motion.”
“We are crashing now,” said Leul.
“Let us crash, finished,” said the hijacker. “We shall all die here.”
“Okay. We will crash,” said Leul.
“Release it, finished,” the hijacker said again. “Never think of the impossible.” He then added, “Descend! You will drop down at 20,” apparently threatening to kill Leul if the altitude dropped below 20,000 feet.
“I am not the one doing — ”
“Finished,” the hijacker interrupted.
“I am not the one doing it,” Leul again said.
“You will drop at 20,” the hijacker repeated.
“Look, I am not the one who is descending it,” said Leul. “As the speed drops — ”
“Go ahead, go ahead, you will get it, finished,” the hijacker interrupted again.
“I am not taking any action, until my patience reaches a certain limit, finished,” the hijacker said. “Whether you drop here or there you will die anyway. Therefore, get out of here.”
“At least let me land my family on the water,” Leul said.
“Why? Get out of here,” said the hijacker. He was pulling on the controls again, trading speed for altitude in a desperate attempt to stay airborne. “It has come up to 23,” he said. “So you are killing everyone at your own discretion.”
“No, we will die for sure,” said Leul. “We are dead. Now that as far as I am concerned we are all dead. My fuel is out. The aircraft will descend by itself, there is nothing I can do about it.”
“Let it descend by itself, don’t touch it,” the hijacker said. Spotting the island of Grande Comore again, he suddenly asked, “Who is that? In no way can you land there!”
“I won’t land there,” Leul insisted.
“I know,” said the hijacker.
“I told you, I won’t land there, I won’t, I mean to perform at least something meaningful on the water before the engine is completely out,” said Leul.
“Alright, tell me what that country is,” the hijacker insisted.
“Which one, which country?” Leul asked.
“There it is, I see land over there,” said the hijacker. “So what is it called?”
“I don’t know it, really, I don’t,” said Leul. “Look. It is not on the chart. How can I show you? I don’t know it.”
Despite the hijackers’ attempts to defy gravity, however, the plane continued to descend. “Twenty-one thousand,” the lead hijacker said, watching the altitude continue ticking inexorably downward.
“What, may we land on dry ground?” Leul asked.
“No way,” said the hijacker.
“Discuss between yourselves,” Leul suggested.
“I said, impossible,” the hijacker insisted.
“Shut up!” someone shouted, along with something unintelligible.
“I don’t know it,” Leul said, referring again to the island.
“Is that all?”
“It is some country in the Indian Ocean,” Leul said. “I told you, as far as I am concerned, I am dead, there is nothing you can do to me hereafter. My fuel is exhausted. It is reading zero, zero.”
“So what? Let it be exhausted,” said the hijacker.
“That is all, sit down,” said Leul. “You can do nothing to me from now on.”
“Hereafter, you can do nothing to me!”
“Yes, I am dead,” Leul said.
At that moment, another repetitive chime warned that their left engine was also failing. “There you are, the second engine is also out!” said Leul.
“You will see what I can do to you!” the hijacker threatened.
“That’s it,” said Leul. “Both engines stopped. That is it. You wanted that, didn’t you!?”
“Yes,” said the hijacker.
“Both engines are out. There is nothing you hold me for,” said Leul.
“I said let it be out.”
“Therefore, there is nothing you hold me for,” Leul repeated.
“Stop it and move on. I will show you really where I intend to kill you,” said the hijacker.
“Kill me wherever you want,” Leul said.
“Finished,” the hijacker exclaimed.
“I am a dead man, that is all,” Leul continued. “I am not to be told where to be killed. I am a dead man handling an aircraft without fuel.” In the background, the warning chime continued to sound, a steady “beep… beep… beep,” as though the aircraft itself was flatlining.
“For the sake of my responsibility, at least the passengers must know the condition,” Leul added.
“Descend it, increase the speed further,” the lead hijacker ordered. Having apparently concluded that Leul wasn’t bluffing after all, and that they really did have no more fuel, he had seemingly decided to turn the flight into a suicide mission.
“It doesn’t [make] any difference, please,” said Leul. “All the same, we are going to die.”
Seconds later, with the left engine winding down, the plane lost all electrical power, and both black boxes ceased recording. Beneath the fuselage, the ram air turbine, or RAT, deployed automatically, windmilling in the airstream to generate power for a few critical flight instruments and hydraulic pumps. Said Ibrahim International Airport was probably still in gliding range, but with the hijackers determined to prevent him from landing there, Leul had only two options — try to fight them to the runway, or attempt a perilous ditching without power in the Indian Ocean.
By the time the flight recorders stopped, the plane was at 15,000 feet and falling fast. In the cabin, panic had set in as numerous passengers, fearing an imminent ditching, retrieved their life vests and began to inflate them prematurely, despite attempts to stop them by other passengers, the cabin crew, and First Officer Yonas Mekuria. He and the cabin crew made several announcements attempting to explain that inflating one’s life vest inside the plane will make it difficult or impossible to swim out, but the announcements were only given in English, and it is believed that many passengers never comprehended the danger. Leul tried himself to get the message across with another announcement, in which he also threatened the hijackers, reminding them that the passengers would be able to identify them if they survived, but this too was only marginally effective.
Still fighting with the hijackers for control of the aircraft, Captain Leul now flew past the north end of the island and attempted to turn back to the south, intending to get as close as he could to the airport, but according to his account of events, he lost sight of the field during the struggle and was unable to relocate it. Some sources also suggest that by the time he gained control of the plane, the airport was out of reach anyway. However, he did at least receive some much-needed help: no longer cowed by the hijackers, First Officer Yonas Mekuria forced his way back into the cockpit, shouting “Let me help the captain,” at which point both pilots began fighting both with the controls themselves, rendered abnormally heavy by the limited hydraulic power available, and with the hijackers, who continued their attempts to seize the First Officer’s yoke. This battle continued until they were only 150 feet above the water, at which point the hijackers apparently stepped back to watch. In the passenger cabin, several “large men” were reportedly still trying to organize resistance against the hijackers, but it was far too late.
Coming in fast and low off the north coast of Grande Comore, traveling at a blistering 200 knots, flight 961 glided noiselessly toward shore near the town Mitsamiouli, before making a sharp left turn to align with the ocean waves breaking against the white expanse of Galawa Beach. Once the most popular beach in the Comoros for international tourists — it should be noted that this is not a high bar to clear — Galawa Beach was also home to the only major tourist resort in the entire country, the Le Galawa Hotel, which was popular with South African tourists, especially before the fall of apartheid. It was a lovely afternoon on the beach that day, and plenty of tourists were out and about — including, by coincidence, a couple from South Africa who happened to have a camcorder at hand. Believing that they were witnessing some kind of air show event, they switched on the camera just as flight 961 started to touch the water, at which point they very quickly realized that this was no mere demonstration.
On board the plane, Leul’s last, desperate attempt to line up with the surf and avoid hitting the shore did not quite pan out, as the left wingtip suddenly dug into the water before he could level out. As stunned witnesses watched in awe and horror, the left wingtip dragged the rest of the plane down after it, sending the gigantic scoop-shaped inlet of the left engine plowing into the turquoise sea. Decelerating dramatically, but still in possession of considerable momentum, the entire plane pivoted about the left engine, rotating into a sideslip followed by a dramatic cartwheel, as the right wing rose up and over the capsizing fuselage like an immense sail, surrounded by a towering column of roiling water and flying debris. Simultaneously, the fuselage hit rock bottom — literally — as it collided with an underwater reef, ripping the cabin into several pieces, which tumbled through the sea for a short distance before coming to a halt some 500 meters from the shoreline.
On board, the massive impact killed numerous passengers instantly, and anyone who was not strapped down was thrown violently to their death, including, by most accounts, all three of the hijackers. Others were torn apart by flying debris, while untold dozens survived the crash only to find that the plane had turned upside down and filled almost instantly with water. The sea was in fact so shallow at the site of the crash that the 767’s upturned belly remained visible above the waterline, having sunk as far as it could go, but for those trapped inside, this made little difference. Only those who were thrown from the plane, or who managed to swim out through the debris, bodies, and churning surf, escaped alive. Some unknown number of passengers who missed or ignored pleas to leave their life vests deflated are also believed to have drowned inside the cabin, unable to swim down to the upturned exit doors because their inflated life vests pinned them to the floor, which was now the ceiling. However, contrary to popular belief, these victims did not make up a majority, as the accident report notes that more than half of those who died suffered traumatic injuries incompatible with survival.
Nevertheless, for those who did survive, a quick response proved key. The choice of ditching site — just off the coast of the country’s biggest resort — was decisive, as dozens of witnesses immediately rushed to the scene, many of them in boats, including a team of scuba divers from an attached dive school, and a party of eight French doctors staying at the hotel. These impromptu first responders began pulling people from the water within seconds of the crash, saving numerous lives, as emergency services dispatched from Moroni took more than half an hour to traverse the 16 kilometers to the crash site along rough, single-lane dirt roads. Injured victims were subsequently taken to barely functioning hospitals in Mitsamiouli and Moroni, where overwhelmed medical staff struggled to treat them, but it was the best response the tiny, impoverished island could muster.
By the time divers had scoured the area and French salvage ships had dragged the wreckage ashore, it was clear that the majority of those on board flight 961 had not made it out alive. In the end, of the 175 people on board, 125 died and only 50 survived. Among the dead were all three hijackers — two men mistakenly thought to be hijackers were initially detained, but were later released — as well as famed Kenyan news cameraman Mohamed Amin, who helped bring the attention of the world to the famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s. Seven members of the cabin crew also died, but two survived, as well as both First Officer Yonas Mekuria and Captain Leul Abate, whom Yonas managed to pull from the cockpit moments after the crash.
For the tiny nation of the Comoros, the crash of a fully loaded airliner was almost too much to handle. Authorities struggled to deal with the influx of attention, and so many foreign officials and journalists descended upon the island of Grande Comore that the main airport almost ran out of room for arriving aircraft. Nor was there anywhere to store the bodies of the 125 victims, because the city of Moroni did not have a mortuary, nor did it have anyone with the expertise required to identify the bodies once they began to decompose. At the suggestion of a team of Israeli experts, authorities ultimately requisitioned several commercial freezers, including some that had not been used in several years, and scrambled to restore them to working order within a matter of hours. Supplying enough generators to keep the freezers running was a major task in and of itself, as the Comorian electrical grid has long been in disrepair and the state utility often struggled just to keep the lights on.
Another institution that Comoros lacked was any sort of expertise in air crash investigation. For that reason, Comoros and Ethiopia signed a memorandum of understanding days after the crash that handed over control of the investigation to Ethiopia, and it was the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Agency’s Flight Safety Department that ultimately penned the final report on the incident.
Unfortunately, that report did not contain much in the way of answers. It provided a basic timeline of events, backed up by transcripts of cockpit and ATC communications, but not much more. The cockpit voice recording only captured the 32 minutes leading up to the second engine flameout, along with the two minutes immediately after, leaving most of the flight without direct attestation other than the accounts of survivors, including Leul Abate. The flight data recorder also presented some difficulty, as the data encoding unit was found to have encoded the received parameters according to a data frame layout meant for the Boeing 757, and some data were lost in the process. But despite these setbacks, it was obvious enough that the proximate cause of the crash was the hijackers’ insistence on flying to Australia with insufficient fuel, despite Captain Leul’s heroic attempts to convince them otherwise. In fact, an even more dire outcome was almost certainly averted thanks to Leul’s impressive negotiation and deception tactics, which resulted in the aircraft paralleling the coastline for long enough that once he was finally forced to turn out to sea, the Comoros Islands provided refuge.
As for the identities and motivations of the hijackers, precious little is known. The Ethiopian government eventually identified them as three Ethiopian citizens named Alemayehu Bekeli Belayneh, Mathias Solomon Belay, and Sultan Ali Hussein, noting that two of them were unemployed high school graduates and the third was a nurse, but without providing any other information. One of the three was said to have worked in Djibouti, a French-speaking neighbor of Ethiopia, but even this did little to explain why all three hijackers communicated in French, while appearing to lack fluency in Amharic, one of the main national languages of Ethiopia. Of course, Ethiopia has many indigenous languages other than Amharic, which could necessitate the use of a common lingua franca, but normally that would have been English, not French. Complicating the mystery further, the Ethiopian government stated that none of the three men had ever been a member of a political party, despite their claim (verified by numerous surviving passengers) that they were “opponents of the government” who had possibly escaped from prison. Captain Leul recalled the hijackers telling him they had friends in Australia, which explained their choice of destination, but he too was unable to pin down their exact motivations, except that they allegedly “wanted to make history.”
Although the Ethiopian government doubtlessly knows much more than what they have released, it remains unclear whether the hijackers were political refugees or merely seekers of economic opportunity overseas. Even their very identities may remain in question. Regardless, their plot was clearly half-baked: according to some sources, their “bomb” was actually nothing more than an unopened bottle of alcohol concealed under some kind of cover, and they seemingly had no plan B when told they could not reach Australia. Although at first the hijackers clearly believed Leul was bluffing about not having enough fuel, this became undeniable towards the end of the flight, especially after both engines flamed out. And yet, at that point, instead of letting Leul land the plane, they only intensified their efforts to crash it, threatening to send the aircraft plunging into the sea, or worse, careening into the Le Galawa Hotel. In a quote cited by the Washington Post, Leul reportedly said, “At the start, I think it was a genuine hijack, but when they knew that was impossible I think it turned into a suicide.” Describing the hijackers, the Post further added, “[These were] three young men from the Horn of Africa with a strong grudge, a slender grasp of geography and, eventually, a readiness to kill a plane load of innocent people when their plans went awry.”
An FAA publication on airline security, released in 1997, noted that the behavior of the hijackers was rather anomalous in comparison to most other hijackings. The article cited a lack of any apparent political or religious motivation — in fact, the hijackers did not seem to care about who was on the plane, and largely left the passengers alone — which contrasted with their almost fanatic willingness to kill everyone aboard once it became clear that their demands would not be met. Such evil is more typically associated with profound belief in a cause, but in this case, the hijackers’ destructive actions appeared motivated by nothing more than deeply seated nihilism.
The matter of security was also barely mentioned in the Ethiopian report. Whether there was any prior suspicion about these men is unknown, and the available information does not allow us to say whether there was any cause to have stopped them from boarding. Furthermore, once on board, there was nothing to stop them from hijacking the plane — after all, the cockpit door was unlocked, as was standard practice before the September 11th attacks, and all they had to do to stymie resistance in the cabin was make a vague, unconvincing bomb threat. The mindset among passengers at that time was that the hijackers would force the pilots to land somewhere, at which point negotiations would occur, and they would be released. They were unprepared to face hijackers who were apparently hell-bent on destruction, and only a few “large men” even considered organizing a confrontation, despite Leul’s plea for the passengers to “react.” (Although some retellings purport that the news cameraman Mohamed Amin was among those who tried to resist, I was not able to find any eyewitness testimony that would confirm or deny this.)
However, since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, this hesitance has vanished — in fact, the belief that hijackers intend to crash into soft targets is now so widespread that unarmed passengers typically swarm any attackers immediately. This mentality changed permanently and most likely irreversibly within such a short period of time that even the fourth hijacked plane on September 11th, United flight 93, was stopped from reaching its target — and this pattern has been repeated in most hijackings ever since, regardless of the attackers’ actual intentions. Therefore, although the Ethiopian investigation report suggested the carriage of “sky marshals” as potential figures to confront hijackers, the horrifying deaths of thousands of people eventually did the job instead.
Looking back now, the crash of flight 961 does still offer a few basic, but important, lessons for passengers and pilots alike. For instance, hijackers should be resisted; life vests should not be inflated until you leave the airplane; and a calm and respectful but assertive attitude helps prevent a touchy situation from escalating. But the scale and importance of the unanswered questions leaves the narrative somewhat wanting, and I almost declined to revisit this incident for fear that I would be unable to add anything new or profound to an already rather well-known tale. However, reading over the cockpit voice recorder transcript, I was struck by the professionalism and bravery of Leul Abate, and felt that it would be a disservice not to reproduce that transcript in its entirety, so that my readers may see for themselves what he accomplished. For four hours, he toed the line between twin disasters, staring down the profoundly irrational and steering around its destructive tendencies to find an outcome that saved as many lives as possible, even if many others were lost. That he and First Officer Yonas Mekuria lived to tell the tale, while the hijackers perished alongside their victims, shows that even in the face of immense tragedy, the universe still managed to deal some small measure of justice.
As for the various people and places involved, the passage of time has left its mark. Although the people of the Comoros did not forget the tragedy, their hardships unfortunately did not end. Disaster again visited the islands in 2009, when Yemenia flight 626 crashed into the sea just a few miles from where flight 961 ditched 13 years earlier, claiming the lives of all but one of the 153 passengers and crew. And despite the Comorian investigation team members’ recommendations to improve the country’s infrastructure, the economic situation in the archipelago has only continued to deteriorate. Even the Le Galawa resort, which helped organize much of the rescue effort, was razed sometime around 2008 in order to make way for a new, better resort financed by a state-owned Emirati development company, but the new complex never materialized, robbing Comoros of the only hotel in the country that met international standards. Still, not all fared so badly: Ethiopian Airlines, for instance, is now a much larger carrier with over 100 aircraft, and blessedly few hijackings. Additionally, both Leul and Yonas continued to fly for Ethiopian Airlines until their retirement, and Leul received the Flight Safety Foundation’s Professionalism in Flight Safety Award, even though he always insisted that Yonas, who fought the hijackers while he landed the plane, was the real hero. Of course, there is no doubt that they both played a role — but there is a special place in our hearts for the courageous captain who remained humble to the end.
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Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 56 of the plane crash series on September 29th, 2018, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original.