Small World

It could happen here; 29 years ago, it almost did

Tuesday was a beautiful day downtown. The empty sky was bluer than it's been all summer, the sunshine cooled by a light breeze. On Market Square, a string quartet played "Ave Maria." Barricades sealed traffic away from the TVA buildings, the closest thing to twin towers we have. In the restaurants and barber shops conversation was muted, except from the street preachers at Market and Union, who seemed louder and more enthusiastic than ever, holding big cardboard signs that said, The Fashion of the World Passeth Away.

It's a small world now. Pedestrians on cellphones conveyed firsthand reports. A quiet crowd at Harold's Deli watched Dan Rather on CBS. The News-Sentinel was hawking an Extra edition on the street corners. It was already outdated by breaking news on the TVs in the bars, but everyone agreed it was a quaint gesture, almost comforting.

"Are you leaving already?" one businessman called to another just after lunchtime. "I'm going to check on my kids," he said.

Perhaps responding to years of big-city disparagement, one man tried to smile as he said, "Ain't it good to be in Tennessee?" but his heart wasn't in it.

We shouldn't rest so easy. Terrorism isn't new, nor is it a stranger here. In Tennessee, terrorism is an old acquaintance. Not quite 29 years ago, we even had to deal with suicidal jetliner terrorists.

Terrorism has been lurking in this red clay for at least 250 years. When the Anglos and Indians weren't happy with each other, they'd raid each other's villages and lay waste to them, set them on fire, kill innocents by the score. Later, with whippings, maimings, burnings at the stake, fretful slave owners terrorized slaves. Later, Union troops have terrorized Southerners by killing their animals and burning down their houses. Later, the Ku Klux Klan terrorized ambitious blacks by kidnapping and hanging them.

When we talk about the newness of terrorism, we forget the suitcase bombings that terrorized black neighborhoods of Clinton in the late '50s. The White Citizens Council was doing that sort of thing before Islamic Jihad ever did. Literature professors were startled to learn later that the Svengali behind the bombings was none other than the poet Ezra Pound, imprisoned, then institutionalized, for his fascist propagandizing in Italy during World War II. It's a much smaller world than we like to think.

Some TV commentators remember the airliner hijackings of the '70s almost fondly, recalling how different they were from what happened Tuesday. Hijackers scared passengers but never crashed a jetliner into an occupied building. One time, though, they almost did. It almost happened here.

In the fall of 1972, three armed men, two of them former Knoxvillians, walked past the metal detector at Montgomery, Alabama, armed with guns and grenades, and hijacked a Southern Airways DC-9 with about 30 passengers on board. They forced the pilot to fly across the United States and Canada, threatening to crash the plane unless they got $10 million. "We'll make this thing look worst than Munich," one said.

That sunny Saturday, they forced the pilot to fly the jet, which bore a Have A Nice Day happy face on its nose cone, around and around over Knoxville. As I delivered newspapers that afternoon, I kept a wary eye toward the sky. I thought I saw it once.

Up there, frustrated with delays in getting their money, they circled Oak Ridge. They said they'd crash the airliner into ORNL's laboratories, assuming it would set off a nuclear chain reaction that would decimate the metropolitan area.

From the air above Y-12, the hijackers called the Nixon White House, demanding amnesty from the president. But they didn't get through to the president. They talked to aide John Ehrlichman. Perhaps busy with the Watergate cover-up, Ehrlichman hadn't been watching the news, and hadn't heard a thing about the hijackers. "And what is the nature of your call?" he demanded.

His ignorance enraged the terrorists, who believed that they were world famous. They treasured their fame, because they had nothing else.

"Dive it! Dive it!" demanded hijacker Henry Jackson in the cockpit. "The company don't care about us. The people don't care, the president don't care. This is the only thing left to do." With a live grenade held to his skull, pilot Bill Haas descended in a steep spiral toward ORNL.

Meanwhile, officials evacuated thousands of workers from Y-12 and other labs, but claimed the plane couldn't cause any sort of nuclear catastrophe. It would just be a big mess.

Just then, the hijackers received word that the $10 million was theirs. They didn't buy it at first. The pilot had to offer some persuasion. "Listen, Henry, you've accomplished your goal," said Haas, a Tennessean. "Before long, you'll be millionaires.... If this continues, you'll be dead in a matter of minutes. Your bones and the bones of thousands, maybe millions of people...will be scattered to the winds. There'll be your flesh and the skin of the others clinging to the trees for miles around."

Persuaded, Jackson let Haas pull the DC-9 out of its dive. He wasn't as committed to a cause as later hijackers would be. They picked up the money in Chattanooga. Then, on the runway at Orlando, FBI agents shot out the plane's tires, angering the hijackers who shot and wounded the co-pilot. Haas somehow succeeded in getting the plane airborne again. He flew to Havana.

As it turned out, Havana was ready for them. Cuban authorities arrested the three millionaire hijackers. The Cubans freed the passengers but, just to show that we're still enemies, held onto the hijackers' ransom money for a couple of years before returning it.

A lot of people have forgotten about that incident. I've heard there was a book about it, called Odyssey of Terror, or something like that, but I couldn't find a copy of it. People have a short memory for the lesser terrors.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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