Saturday, September 12, 2009

Anatomy of a Hijack

by Tom Emch

Last passenger to board, a middle-aged Chinese, hurries across the ramp and into the plane. Stewardess Jacque Stallman closes the door, buzzes the cockpit and tells Captain Dennis Waller they are clear. The Boeing 737 jet begins backing away from the gate at Sacramento Municipal Airport.

Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 710 for San Francisco. Scheduled departure, 9:50 a.m. One minute late.

Eighty-one passengers and a crew of five for a half hour commuter trip. Weather good; no problems. There never have been any problems on this run. But six hours and ten minutes later, Flight 710 will still be on the ground in San Francisco, parked at the end of Runway Nineteen Left with the passengers aboard.

Three people will be dead; two injured.

Six hours and ten minutes after takeoff from Sacramento, Captain Waller will be covered with the blood of a hijacker, Dimitr Alexiev. Hijacker Michael Azmanoff will be covered with his own blood, from four FBI bullets. E. H. Stanley Carter, from a suburb of Montreal, will be slumped over the lap of his wife, dead. Leo R. Gormley of Van Nuys, a heart disease victim on borrowed time, will be wounded, a bullet in his neck. And Victor Sen Yung, Chinese-American television actor, will be bleeding from a bullet hole in the small of his back, a player, for the first time, in a real life-and-death drama.

Hijackers take their chances; some are killed. But passengers, these are the first to be wounded by gunfire in a U.S. skyjacking. Carter, a sixty-six year old railroad conductor, is the first passenger to be killed.

Character actor Victor Sen Yung, who plays Hop Sing, the Chinese cook in the Bonanza Series, walks up to the PSA desk at the airport and buys a ticket for Burbank.

He was Parade Marshal at Pollock Pines the day before - the Fourth of July. Today he is going home to Universal City. He checks his bags through and with a friend, Jeff Wong, a Sacramento radio personality, goes into the coffee shop to kill half an hour.

The two are deep in conversation when Wong looks at his watch and says, "You'd better run." Two minutes to plane time.

Sen Yung flashes his ticket at the sole gate attendant and goes aboard. Immediately the door closes behind him. The tower clears Flight 710 for takeoff.

No one recognizes the actor in the sport shirt. He walks to the rear of the crowded plane and finds a seat back near the galley aisle seat on the left. Next to him is Daniel Kahawai who is traveling home to Honolulu with his wife and five children. Two rows ahead are Stanley Carter and his wife, Lillian. Behind are stewardesses Linda Heath and Lorraine Adamski, the latter a bride of two weeks who is still stealing glances at her wedding ring.

Passengers, including two Bulgarian immigrants wearing suits and dark glasses, are belted for takeoff. Captain Waller positions the jet at the head of the runway, releases the brake and the plane begins to roll. In a moment, Flight 710 is airborne.

The flight appears to be routine. Stanley Carter, happy, looking forward to settling down to retirement in Los Angeles talks to his wife. He tells the man across the aisle, Dr. Manuel Alvarez of Sacramento, of his plans. The 'No Smokng' sign goes off.

Stewardesses Heath and Adamski are forward: stewardess Stallman is in the rear preparing refreshments at the galley. It is a minute or two after 10 a.m. The seat belt sign goes off.

A man in a dark suit stands up, turns his back to the passengers and shows an automatic pistol to Miss Stallman. He forces her back behind the partition.

The gunman tells her he is taking over the plane, orders her to pick up the phone to the cockpit and tell the captain they are going to Russia. He wants the captain informed he will need two parachutes and $800,000.

Then, he tells Miss Stallman to summon the other two stewardesses to come to the rear and sit down. They walk to the back of the plane, unable to believe what is happening.

As the stewardesses go past, Sen Yung, the actor, lets his eyes follow the mini skirts, and he turns his head around until, from the corner of his right eye, he sees a man with his hands crossed and an automatic pistol in each hand.

One is pointed at the stewardess standing near the galley, the other is aimed at the seated stewardesses.

The realization begins to sink in - hijack - and Sen Yung slowly turns his head back and looks straight forward. The other passengers are unaware of the threat to their lives.

Dr. Alvarez, across the aisle and two seats forward of Sen Yung motions to a stewardess who has walked forward. He orders a glass of punch. It is some time before the punch arrives and he looks quizzically at the stewardess.

Is there something wrong? Alvarez wants to know. Linda Heath ignores him. Alvarez winks at her, half laughs because the question is foolish "Are we being hijacked?"

His expression chanes when the stewardess without saying a word nods yes.

Disbelieving at first, Alvarez is shaken by the grim nod from the stewardess. He thinks, but why hasn't there been any announcement from the captain? Why isn't someone acting alarmed? Perhaps they don't know.

He decides to take a chance. On the paper napkin that came with his glass of punch he writes a note and passes it to the woman acros the aisle.

It reads "I think we're being hijacked."

The woman, Sheila LaPoint of Mobile, traveling with her thirteen year-old daughter, Valerie, reads the note and turns to stare at Alvarez. She's speechless.

Behind them the hijacker, Dimitr Alexiev, says quietly to Sen Yung who has seen the automatics:

"Hey you, move across the aisle."

The actor doesn't move, pretending he doesn't hear or understand. The order is repeated and Sun Yung still doesn't move.

Stewardes Stallman comes up to the actor's row and leans over him "I've been told to tell you to move across the aisle - very slowly."

Now Sen Yung moves. Over to the right side of the aisle to the empty seat one row forward. He is now four rows from the rear, and another row removed from the hijacker and the stewardesses being held at gunpoint.

In the tower at San Francisco International, airport personnel, Federal Aviation Administration officials have received the message from Captain Waller: There is a hijacker aboard. Flight 710 is cleared for landing.

From the tower, the message goes to the FBI, the San Mateo County Sheriff's office, the Coast Guard. According to plan, the Coast Guard will stand by with a launch ready to take aboard agents.

The agent from the San Mateo substation is already on his way to the airport. San Francisco FBI agent in charge Robert Gebhardt has been notified and is moving toward the scene.

A command post is set up on the fourth floor of the Central Terminal with communications men, PSA representatives and the FBI. One agent will be stationed in the tower with the flight controllers.

Flight 710 touches down and the hijacker immediately tells Captain Waller he wants the aircraft parked at the end of Runway Nineteen Left. They park and wait... five minutes. Ten minutes.

Stewardess Stallman is employed by the two hijackers, still in the rear, to take verbal messages to the captain who is to relay demands to the tower. Captain Waller now knows there are two hijackers: they have three automatics between them.

In the command post, the demands are discussed: $800,000 in small bills, two parachutes, aerial navigation charts for Canada, Alaska and Siberia.

There is an offer of a larger aircraft, since the 1500 mile-range 737 could not make the trip to Russia without refueling. This is rejected by the hijackers.

Another offer is to provide an international pilot familiar with the route. With stewardess Stallman carrying the message, this offer is accepted.

The hijackers are told it will take time to raise the money, find a qualified international pilot. There is a tense moment while the anxious hijackers confer in the rear of the plane. They decide they will wait in the air. Captain Waller is ordered to take off immediately.

And twenty minutes after the first landing, Flight 710 is back in the air, in a holding pattern over San Francisco Bay.

Now the passengers know. They had not approached the terminal upon landing in San Francisco. And now they are back in the air - circling. But still there is no announcement from the captain.

The last vestige of doubt is removed a moment later. A voice comes over the public address system. It is Lorraine Adamski:

"Ladies and gentlemen." Her voice is calm and reasuring. "You have all been asked to sit still, face the front and not look back... because this may mean your life."

Several of the passengers sob; there is a murmur of voices that Sen Yung can hear. Stanley Carter starts to rise in his seat; his wife Lillian tells him to get back down.

The aricraft continues to circle, and then there is another announcement by the stewardess Adamski:

"Will all passengers place their hands on top of their heads. And do not look back or fear of your life."

In complete control of the aircraft, crew and passengers, the hijackers felt confident enough now to order the plane to land again. They had made their point; proved they were in command.

Flight 710 again lands, and taxis to the end of Runway Nineteen Left to wait for the ransom, parachutes and new pilot. But there is a difference this time.

The FBI's Gebhardt on the scene in the tower's fourth floor command post is ready to make a decision - to stop the hijacking.

It is now a few minutes before noon. On the plane, the hijackers get the word that it will be two, maybe three hours before the huge amount of ransom can be rounded up. The new pilot, a volunteer, will be available shortly. It's a stall, and Gebhardt will stretch the three hours to more than four.

Resigned to a waiting game, the hijackers, Alexiev and Azmanoff, still in the rear of the aircraft, tell stewardess Adamski to announce to the passengers they can take their hands from on top of their heads. They do, and it is a relief.

Some of them ask if they can smoke and are told they may. A few minutes later, there is a strange procession up the aisle of the plane.

Alexiev, holding a gun on stewardess Adamski in front of him, and one on Stallman behind him, walks up the aisle. Stallman, has her hands on his shoulders. If he feels her hands leave his shoulders, the hijacker has only to turn and fire.

The tandem trio reaches the cockpit and enters. This is the first time Captain Waller and First Officer Dick Peterson get a look at their captor.

It seems like only a few moments later to Sen Yung that he hears Waller's voice:

"This is the captain. Momentarily, we are expecting a truck to come and refuel the plane."

The fuel truck comes; the plane is refueled but few of the passengers are aware of it. One o'clock becomes two o'clock. The stewardesses serve coffee, punch. Drinks that were declined earlier are now accepted gratefully.

Passengers read, talk quietly. There is no hysteria. Only waiting. And some of them are beginning to get hungry. Flight 710 carries no food.

Sometime after three o'clock, Dr. Alvarez beckons a stewardess, asks if he can use the restroom. After a conference with the hijacker in the rear, he is told he can. If he gets up and walks slowly with his hands on his head.

Behind Alvarez and across the aisle, Sen Yung also asks the stewardess for permission to use the restroom, the one in the rear. Because he knows of only one hijacker, the one now up front.

Sen Yung gets up, puts his hands on his head and turns toward the back of the plane. Between the galley and the rear exit is the second hijacker with an automatic pointed directly at him.

The automatic follows Sen Yung into the restroom compartment until the door isclosed. When he opens the door to return to his seat the pistol is again pointed at his nose. He uses his elbow to open the door all the way and walks back up the aisle.

The actor sits down, talks to his seatmate, Daniel Kahawai. Small talk. Cigarettes. More waiting.

Then they hear the voice of the captain for the second time: He says the passengers will be allowed to leave the plane in fifteen or twenty minutes. And the words break the dam of tension.

Most of the eighty-one passengers, including many of the children aboard, break into applause. There are cheers and laughter. The stewardesses smile, answer questions and smile some more. Stewardess Adamski is happy for the passengers, but knows the crew will not be released. She slips off her wedding ring and gives it to one of the women who has befriended her.

"Keep this for me, just in case. I've only had it for two weeks."

The emotional relief is short-lived. Tension returns as the cockpit door swings open and those in the aisle seats can see the hijacker with the two guns, one of the captain and the other trained on the first officer.

Sen Yung sees this and thinks. There's still an armed hijacker in the cockpit and another in the rear. Something can happen before we're released...

He loosens his seatbelt so he can move quickly if he has to, he puts his seat in an upright position, and waits. And at that moment, there is more happenening than the actor can imagine. It's happening out on the runway and behind the parked aircraft.

It is a few minutes before 4 p.m.

A station wagon drives up to within one hundred feet of the plane and stops. In it are two FBi agents. One of them is posing as the international pilot, a volunteer from Pan American. That is what the hijackers have been told. His name is "Jim Williams."

Williams gets out of the automobile which immediately drives off on instructions of the hijackers. He stands and waits. he has a small suitcase, two parachutes and a cloth bag.

Stewardess Stallman, in the cockpit has been told to walk out to the "pilot" and tell him to strip so the hijackers can look him over for concealed weapons.

Suddenly, the passengers see a shaft of sunlight as the forward door is opened and the stairs are lowered. Stewardes Jacque Stallman is ordered to walk down the stairs and out toward the "pilot".

Before he can say anything to her she says evenly, "You don't look like a flight captain. You are to take your clothes off, right here, so they can see if you're armed." His .38 caliber automatic is in his pocket.

Williams says: "I am disappointed I don't look like a pilot. I'm an agent. Keep calm."

When Williams begins to take off his slacks, Miss Stallman turns around and for the first time sees three men in white coveralls under the belly of the aircraft. They are armed with shotguns. And they have arrived by water in a Coast Guard launch tied up directly behind the tail of the plane.

Four more agents, also armed with shotguns, are inching closer to the runway through the grass and dirt. The driver of the station wagon who brought Williams to the runway is also ready to make his move.

In the window of the cockpit, Alexiev can see only the stewardess and the new pilot. He is apparently unarmed and putting his clothes back on.

Williams takes his time dressing, fumbles with his cufflinks, stalls and keeps asking Stallman for details about the hijackers. She tells him one is in the cockpit, one is back near the galley. She describes in detail what they are wearing. She says she has been ordered to stand at the bottom of the stairs when they get back to the plane.

Williams says this is fine: "Stand there until you see the three agents under the belly charge. Then break and run under the plane."

They start back toward the aircraft, hurried along by Captain Waller who is motioning to them from the cockpit. Williams is carrying one of the parachutes and a cloth bag containing navigation charts. Miss Stallman is carrying the other parachute and the suitcase containing the money.

At the foot of the stairs, they both stop. Alexiev tells them to leave the parcels there.

He wants the new "pilot" to put his hands over his head and come up slowly. Williams starts up. Stewardess Stallman stands still, one eye on the three agents under the aircraft.

Williams enters the cabin. Alexiev, with both automatics trained on him, motions the "international pilot" toward the rear where Azmanoff behind a partition has him covered.

At that moment, the three agents under the aircraft make their move. Stewardess Stallman dshes for safety. Concentrating on Williams, Alexiev is caught by surprise as the first of the agents jumps into the cabin and fires a blast from his shotgun.

The single shot catches Alexiev full in the chest and he goes down without ever getting off a shot from either of his automatics. Williams, with his back to the action, dives for an empty seat and comes up firing at Azamoff in the rear.

The remaining hijacker is firing wildly at the agent with the shotgun and Williams. A second agent with a shotgun is firing at the ceiling to keep Azmanoff down.

Lillian Carter yells at her husband to keep down, but it is too late. Stanley Carter has been hit in the chest and is dying.

Two rows behind him, Sen Yung rolls to the right to get out of the way of the shooting. He feels the impact of a bullet near his spine.

Leo Gormley puts a hand to his neck and feels blood.

Dr. Alvarez, his seat in the reclining position, slumps down as far as he can. He is safe. Sheila LaPoint, across the aisle screams and throws her body over her daughter. Alvarez looks over at Carter and his wife. He hears Carter say:

"I'm going...this is it. Kiss me, Lil."

Williams finds the range and gets a few shots from the pistol into Azmanoff, who is frantically tring to reload.

But the luckless Bulgarian is already mortally wounded. He drops his empty pistol and grabs a knife. A final shot from Williams ends the hijack attempt, and the life of Michael Azmanoff.

Just as abruptly as it had begun, the shooting stops. Two hijackers are dead. So is Stanley Carter, whose retirement from the Canadian National Railroad ended a few weeks after it started.

Stewardess Adamaski, standing behind Alexiev when he was shot dead, is crying softly.

Passenger Sen Yung is helped up by Kahawai. The actor is bleeding bladly from a bullet that had entered the small of his back at the belt and lodged in his left side near the skin. He had saved his life by rolling right when the shooting started.

Leo Gormley is slumped in his seat, semi-conscious. A bullet has passed through his neck, missing the vital arteries. Dr. Alvarez is helping him. The doctor, a Sacramento chiropractor, looks up at an agent and hears him say to no one in particular.

"We got the sonofabitch."

Another FBI agent tells Sen Yung. "It's all over now. A stretcher is coming."

In the cockpit, Captain Waller, splattered with Alexiev's blood, is on the microphone talking to the tower:

"Ambulance. Need an ambulance... we have a passneger hurt..."

(The official Federal Aviaiton Administration recording of this conversation lists the time as 4:03 p.m.)

Tower to PSA 710: "Is any of the crew injured?"

"Negative," says Waller.

The tower asks Waller to confirm passenger injuries and wants to know about hijackers.

Waller says: "There are two of the passengers injured ... the one up front, (the hijacker), is disabled. I think he's ..." The tape goes blank at this point.

Linda Heath tells the passengers, "You can go now."

Flight 710 is over.

Passengers are already leaving by the front exit, down the stairs. In the rear a stewardess activated the emergency chute and kicks it free of the door as it inflates. The wind whips the chute off the runway until one of the agents anchors it with his body.

On the runway, stewardess Stallman rushes up to an FBI agent and hugs him: "Thank God you came." She kisses him, and one of the passengers. Some are laughing; some sobbing.

Sen Yung is helped out of the forward door and down the stairs on a stretcher. He is told a helicopter will take him to the hospital. but he is placed in an ambulance, after a few minutes, and taken to Penninsula Hospital. Gormley also is taken to Penninsula Hospital. So is Carter, although, he is quite dead.

The bodies of Michael Azmanoff and Dimitr Alexiev are placed on gurneys, moved to ambulances and taken to Chope Community Hospitals where autopsies will be performed.

It is 4:20 p.m. Six hours and thirty minutes after Flight 710 dearted Sacramento Municipal Airport.

The passengers are taken by bus and car to a room in the terminal and briefly interrogated by FBI agents. Then, they are moved to the Hilton Airport Inn to talk to newspaper and television reporters.

Mrs. Arthur Stone of Detroit recalls that she began to cry when the first shots were fired.

"Some said 'hit the deck,' " says Larry Jenkins of Sacramento. "I was down on the floor, fast."

"I was scared to death," remembers twelve year old Aaron Marcus of Tiburon. "I started crying and shaking."

"I just fell on the floor between the seats, " says Bill Corcoran of Sacramento.

One of the passengers, Franz Lingnau of El Dorado Hills, had little to say to the reporters. The next day he was to board another PSA jet for the return trip to Sacramento. This one would be hijacked by an AWOL Army private first class, Francis M. Goodell, who later gave himself up to authorities. Lingnau thus became the first man to be hijacked twice on consecutive days.

By nightfall, passengers with destinations other than San Francisco found connections. Mrs. Stone went back to Detroit: Dr. Alvarez proceeded to Dallas. For most of them the episode was over, a vivid memory; but now safe from harm, it was also something to joke about, relate to friends at home.

Mrs. Stanley Carter, whose husband was slain by hijackers' bullets, awaiting the arrival of a son from Vancouver. Together they would make funeral arrangements, and later the widow would return to Montreal.

For the crew, Captain Waller, First Officer Peterson, stewardesses Stallman, Heath and Adamski, there was a break in their flying schedules, a week's rest, adn then back to work.

That is as much as is known about Flight 710. FBI reports on the incident are closed pending the outcome of lawsuits.

Of the hijackers there is even less known. But there is a skeleton of information pieced together from neighbors, and from what the FBI has made public.


The FBI, after the hijacking, routinely checked Sacramento Municipal Airport for an automobile belonging to either Azmanoff or Alexiev.

They found none and suspected immediately there was an accomplice. Suspicion was backed up by evidence when William Scott, San Mateo County coroner's investigator, found a slip of paper on the body of Alexiev.

It read: "Fifty-two degrees, seven minutes north; one hundred twenty-four degrees, ten minutes west. Altitude 3100 feet, runway 6210 feet lng." The location was an abandoned airstrip in the wilds of British Columbia. Puntzi Lake.

With the cooperation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, it was discovered that a charter pilot from Campbell River, on the east shore of Vancouver Island, had flown three men to Puntzi Lake on June 25, and on the day of the hijacking he had again been chartered to fly to Puntzi Lake. With a man who said he was a real estate speculator.

The man ordered the pilot to take him back to Campbell River "in a hurry" on the morning of July 6.

On July 13, eight days after the shootout at San Francisco International Airport, Lubomir Peichev, identified from a picture, was arrested as he left work at an Oakland machine shop. Peichev was established as a friend of the slain hijackers and a former pilot for a Bulgarian airline. He was traced from Bulgaria in 1967 to Massachusetts, where he married Sheila Tierney. They moved to San Francisco in 1970. At the time of his arrest, Peichev was estranged from his wife and living in a small Oakland hotel.

Earlier, a search of the luggage aboard Flight 710 revealed a suitcase containing two inflatable plastic dummies, apparently to be dropped as a decoy.

With the capture of Peichev and the evidence of the scribbled note and the plastic dummies, the FBI was able to build a theory:

The hijackers had apparently planned to take over the PSA plane enroute to San Francisco, and bargaining with an offer to release the passengers, obtain the $800,000 ransom.

From San Francisco, the aircraft would head for Puntzi Lake, and somewhere along the way, the dummies would be parachuted out to draw off pursuers.

The 737 and crew would be abandoned at Puntzi Lake were Peichev was waiting. Then, the three conspirators would commendeer the light plane and leave the pilot behind.

It is believed they planned to fly to Hope, a small Canadian town near the Washington State border, abandon the charter plane and disappear. With the $800,000 ransom.

Azmanoff, officials said, fled Bulgaria to Ankara and would up in a refugee cmp in Naples before coming to the United States in 1968 under the sponsorship of the National Council of Churches.
He had served in the U.S. Army as a truck driver, and settled in the Bay Area in 1970. He once had an address on Clement Street, and had been seen by friends with Alexiev.

Dimitr Alexiev had come to the Bay Area in 1970 from Bulgaria, via Beirut and New jesey. He became a "permanent resident" on March 2, 1971, and later married a divorcee with three children, Mrs. Joan Day.

The family lived at 2588 Atwell Place, Hayward. Before moving to Hayward, Alexiev had lived in San Francisco and worked for the Yellow Cab Company in Pacifica. He had been arrested once, for soliciting passengers at San Francisco International Airport. The firm he worked for did not have an airport franchise.

Whether or not the three Bulgarians had known each other in their homeland is not known. What they planned to do with the ransom is not known.

Alexiev and Azmanoff were both twenty-eight years old when they died. Peichev was twenty-nine when he was arrested. His crime carries a minimum sentence of twenty years impresonment, maximum penalty - death.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle September 1972