CanJet Airliner Stormed; Hostages Freed, Hijacker Arrested

20 April 2009 at 3:48 pm (News, World Issues) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — Canadians bound for holidays and wedding celebrations in Cuba wept softly and prayed for their safety Monday after a lone gunman with “mental challenges” forced his way through security and stormed their airliner as it prepared to leave an airport in Jamaica.
After a quick-thinking flight attendant convinced their would-be captor to accept cash and belongings in exchange for their freedom, 159 passengers and two crew members were able to escape CanJet Airlines Flight 918 after less than an hour of captivity.

It would be seven more hours, however, before the remaining six crew members would be freed without bloodshed by members of a Jamaican counter-terrorism squad who stormed the Boeing 737’s cabin and disarmed the gunman, who apparently wanted to fly to Cuba.

“I’m very relieved, extremely relieved, that it’s over and nobody has been hurt,” said Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who spent a sleepless night at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, helping to negotiate the release of the hostages.

Golding issued an abject apology to his country’s Canadian guests and offered them luxe accommodations and cash in exchange for their forgone money and belongings. But foremost on his mind was the question of how it all happened in the first place.

“There was quite clearly a breach of security at the airport,” Golding said. “I’ve asked for an investigation to be done immediately and a report to be made.”

Passengers told a harrowing tale of nerve-rattling moments and heroic efforts by crew, a sequence of events that began with angry shouts of, “I’m hijacking this plane,” and also included a flight attendant being blasted with a fire extinguisher and a shot fired out the aircraft’s back door.

There were several wedding parties on board the plane, including one comprised entirely of hearing-impaired people — including the bride. Their efforts to communicate with sign language only served to agitate their captor, they said.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was coincidentally in the capital city of Kingston to meet with Golding and address a joint session of Parliament, instead travelled to Montego Bay to congratulate his Jamaican counterpart in person.

“The prime minister of Canada just got off the phone with the Jamaican prime minister,” said spokesman Dimitri Soudas. “Prime Minister Harper thanked Prime Minister Golding for his efforts to oversee the situation and congratulated him for the successful resolution.”

The pair were expected to hold a joint news conference later Monday.

With the passengers long since disembarked, the eight-hour hijacker-and-hostage drama came to an abrupt but peaceful end when members of the Jamaican Defence Force Counter-Terrorism Operations Group “stormed” the cabin, said National Security Minister Dwight Nelson.

In all, 182 people — 174 passengers and eight crew members — had been scheduled to be on board, the airline said.

Kent Woodside, vice-president and general manager of Halifax-based CanJet, hailed the efforts of the airline’s staff to deal with the situation and for getting all the passengers safely off the plane.

“I’m just so proud of how they dealt with it all and that it turned out to be a successful situation,” Woodside told a news conference in Halifax.

A second CanJet plane was being sent to Montego Bay to pick up any passengers who want to return to Canada, while those who want to continue to their original destination of Santa Clara, Cuba, will also be able to do so, he added.

Woodside said CanJet will work with officials in Jamaica to determine how the gunman was able to breach security.

“The front-line security rests with the airport or the airport authority; (There are) many steps of security before he would have reached the aircraft, so that’s the part of the investigation that we’re going to be participating with the Jamaican authorities on, is how this was allowed to happen.”

Police in Jamaica identified the man in custody as Stephen Fray, 23, a resident of Montego Bay. No other details were immediately available, although Information Minister Daryl Vaz earlier described him as a man with “mental challenges.”

Alphonse Gosselin, whose son Christian was on board with girlfriend Nancy as part of a group of people from New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula headed to Cuba for a wedding, spoke with his son shortly after the pair were released.

“He was kind of shaken up, but basically he said everybody in the gang was OK,” Gosselin told CBC Newsworld from his home in Tracadie-Sheila, N.B.

The flight was the first ever for his son’s girlfriend, he added. “She was quite nervous, so I don’t know if she’ll ever fly again.”

Another passenger, Brenda Grenier, told CTV Newsnet the passengers essentially bought their freedom from the gunman, whom she identified as “Rico” and who said he wanted to go to the United States.

The gunman became agitated when a security guard came on board and tried to reason with him, Grenier said. He ordered the pilot off the plane, she said. “I don’t know where the pilot went from there, but then he (Rico) shot his gun.”

“That’s when we all got very, very scared and people were crying and praying and we were just really frightened for all of our lives. There were children on the plane.”

Grenier was filled with praise for the flight attendants, who did a “wonderful” job keeping passengers calm and relaxed, she added.

“The flight attendants were so good on the plane, telling us to relax — they were just really, really wonderful.”

Once back at the airport, said Grenier, there was “hugging and crying and just disbelief that that really happened.”

In an interview with Toronto’s CFRB Radio, Vaz said he was surprised about the fact that someone with a gun was able to breach security.

“That is something our investigation has already started with the police and the operators of the airport and of course, the government airport authority,” he said. “That is something that is ongoing and in the early stages.”


A CanJet info-line for people with relatives who were on the plane can be reached at 1-888-777-6429.


All I can say is, God bless that quick thinking crew.


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