TW 355 Hijacked!
By Angelo Patrizio and Mike Mudge

For 25 years, we have kept all this “just among us boys …

On September10, 1976, TWA flight 355, a 727 en route from LGA to ORD was hijacked by 5 Croatian “Separatists” as it cruised over Elmira, New York. They had boarded the aircraft with a kitchen pressure cooker, allegedly containing a bomb to commandeer the aircraft. Their purpose was to use media attention to publicize the plight of the Croats in Yugoslavia and appeal for Croatian Independence.

As they made stops in Montreal and Iceland, the hijackers demanded that pamphlets be printed detailing the alleged persecution of their fellow countrymen, and that these be dropped by other aircraft flown over Chicago, Montreal, New York City, London and Paris.

To prove they were serious, they had left an actual bomb in a locker in New York’s Grand Central Station, to which they had directed the authorities. Unfortunately, as the Bomb Squad attempted to disarm the bomb at a disposal site in the Bronx, it exploded killing a Police Officer and injuring a second. The saga eventually was ended in Paris when then French authorities shot out the aircraft tires and convinced the hijackers to surrender. The hijackers were arrested and immediately returned via French military aircraft to New York for arraignment. A few days later, the passengers and crew of Flight 355 were boarded on TWA Flight 803 for their return to JFK, but there was a great deal more that took place behind the scenes.

Mike Mudge: Late on the Friday night of the hijacking, we had dispatched a 707-331 out of JFK’s Fight Wing Two as a "chase plane" to lead TW355, a domestic airplane and crew, across the pond. They had a load of leaflets on board that were supposed to be scattered over London and/or Paris per the Croats. I remember a big worry that evening was about how to scatter those leaflets. I understood that our Flight Operations and MCI Engineering staff had been in touch with Boeing, and that throwing the leaflet bundles out of the FO's sliding cockpit window would not result in them being sucked into #3 or striking any part of the aircraft. I'm pretty sure that Capt. Bill Hoar was a member of that crew, but I can't remember the other guys. That aircraft sure looked lonely leaving the brightly lit ramp area and lumbering out into the darkness of the airport’s taxiways.

Angelo Patrizio: That September Sunday began as routinely as could be expected -- I was the Ramp Supervisor assigned to be Manpower Coordinator. I began by checking sick calls, the weather and any non-routine flight delays which could impact maintaining schedule integrity. There was a timely flow to be maintained unloading the inbound flights and loading the outbounds, but we always had to be prepared for the unexpected.
Flight 803, was one of the early afternoon arrivals, and quite often one of the first International 747’s.  Soon after I arrived at my desk in the tower over Flight Wing Two, Mike Mudge the Manager - Passenger Services called me.

Mike: I have a fairly vivid memory of my involvement that afternoon. I remember going to JFK from my home in Massapequa on a Sunday to keep an eye on 803's arrival because 355's pax & crew were on board. I brought my wife and son along, not anticipating any bomb threat incidents, and I parked them in the Ambassadors Club and then went down to the FIS(1) when 803's pax started to come down the escalators. My memory was that the French police had already determined that the device Mr. and Mrs. Zvonko Busic carried on to TW355 was a dummy and we weren't expecting to see it in New York, let alone down in the FIS.

I went back into the INS/USDA/Customs area while the feds and NYPD started interviewing 355's cockpit crew. Someone asked either the FO or FE what the hijackers "bomb" had looked like. "I've got it right here," one said, reaching into his black leather flight bag/Nav kit and pulling out this slow cooker or crock type pot. It had a bright red or yellow or orange glazed outside surface and the crew member said it had been filled with what looked to be modeling clay or silly putty, with wires and electrician's tape stuck in there. I guess the French police gave it to him as a souvenir. I think because of the loss of an officer to a real bomb a few days earlier at the range in the Bronx, an NYPD or PONYA cop shouted "hit the deck" and everyone in the FIS was hugging the terrazzo. That's when I called Angelo on the phone about what had just magically appeared in the FIS area and about getting everyone away from the area.

Angelo: Mike added that I should send everyone on break, and direct them to go to the cafeteria in the main building, or as they often did, the crews should go to the National Airlines cafeteria in the next building. Since Flight Wing One now was off limits and in the process of being evacuated, I asked how long everyone would be on break, as I had other inbounds to worry about. I was advised, that there were no other inbounds, and that all incoming TWA flights had been diverted to airports as far north as Bangor, or south to DCA.

He said the media was in the FIS wanting to meet the hijacked passengers, and that the pressure cooker had indeed returned on this flight as a souvenir given to one of the crew members. These actions were being taken because no one was absolutely sure that this pot was harmless, and I was to keep this as low key as possible and not tell anyone because this could become a public relations nightmare.

Mike added that the NYC Bomb Squad would be on the ramp soon with the pot left for them at the bottom of the FIS stairway, and to have a supervisor meet and direct them to that location. I called Rick Vecchione on the radio and asked him to phone me so I could have him assist the Bomb Squad. Rick listened silently while I told him the story, and at the end of my conversation he said,  "Are you out of your #%&#@$# mind?", and the line went dead.

Meanwhile, the telephone calls from the ramp Leads continued non-stop, punctuated with calls from the shop stewards and grievance committeemen. I told them I was only doing what I had been told, and that I didn't know of any specific bomb threat. By this time, more than an hour had passed, and the troops were getting edgy. On the phone calls they started quoting the specific Article and page of the IAM contract relating to Bomb Threat notification, pressing me for more details. I commented that I believed this was all because of the media attention to the arriving passengers from the hijacked flight, and that extra security had been required. I decided to leave the tower and go to the FIS gate areas to look for the Bomb Squad.
As I roamed the different doorways, I had not realized how many doors were on Flight Wing One. When I saw Rick, he told me he had run into Mike Mudge and the Bomb Squad had picked up the item, and the pot was now safely in their hands.”

Mike: The bomb squad had been called and it seemed to take forever for that flatbed truck, with the big wicker basket they used to contain explosives, to show up on the ramp near the commissary area in Wing One. They retrieved the cooker from a stairwell into FIS and took it away.

Angelo: For some readers of this, only those who have worked the front line in station operations for TWA anywhere on the system could truly understand the complexity of the jigsaw puzzle facing us which we had to put back together:

*  Reservations and ATO agents were besieged with questions about the arrival
     diversions, and departure delays …

*  Maintenance and Operational Planning had to determine which inbound aircraft could
      be turned for which outbound flights …

*  Flight Operations and Crew Scheduling had the challenge of getting the diversions
     airborne into JFK while determining crew legality …

*  Commissary and Dining units had to figure out their ability to clean and provision
flights once an operating schedule had been nailed down … and I am sure other
departments and stations system wide were wondering what had happened at JFK.
I went back up to the tower, and struggled through a day I could never have imagined.
Thank God, I had my youth and didn't even know the word, “stress.”

Now, almost 25 years later, in a recent casual conversation with my cousin, who was one of the Shop Stewards calling me repeatedly that day, I mentioned the "pressure cooker" and he was stunned to learn the truth about all that went on.

So, Mike, I guess we just did our jobs by maintaining it as low key as possible in keeping TWA schedules safely and reasonably on time … but we certainly will never forget the experience!

(1) Federal Inspection Station

Co-authors Angelo Patrizio (1973-1979) served in maintenance, labor relations, quality control, ramp services, and revenue performance analysis at JFK and 605 Third Ave; and Mike Mudge (1970-1983) served in passenger and baggage services, ramp and commissary programs, and reservations at JFK, Penn Plaza, 605 Third Avenue and KCAC.