September 1976 Hijacking of TWA Plane – A Detailed Reconstruction of the Evening in Which the Whole World Learned About Croatia’s Suffering Under Communist Yugoslavia

From left to right: Zvonko Busic, Marko Vlasic, Petar Matanic, Frane Pesut and Julienne Busic after arrest at Paris Airport. There are detectives behind them. Photo: The New York Times, September 13, 1976. | Photo: New York Times/archive

Zvonko Busic believed that good things should be shared with everyone. What he lived, worked for and believed in, what he sacrificed for, is presented in his book “All Visible Things”, which is available on Amazon. From now on, we are happy to inform you, you will be able to have access to this part of Croatian history every other Wednesday and print it out free of charge, in Croatian and English, on the portal. Chapter by chapter, drop of blood by drop of blood, and life day by day in 33 parts – with only one goal! He will live on…

“The Hijacking

After the decision was made, I immediately began preparations. I started studying necessary materials, locating appropriate collaborators, and planned a meeting with Bruno to discuss the Declaration I intended to have printed in newspapers and thrown from the plane. The main handbook for making the bomb was the then popular ‘Anarchist’s Cookbook’. Julie was later accused of having torn pages out of this book in the library, which really upset and angered her, since she comes from a family of book lovers who would consider that an unforgivable sacrilege. She firmly insisted that all she did was photocopy the pages, not tear them out, although it was a totally insignificant point in the trial.

I studied airplanes as well. The plane, I believed, had to be appropriate for what I intended. The choice fell on the Boeing 727. The traditional characteristics one looks for in a plane – speed, size, type, and power of the motor – were not the most critical. What was important was that the plane had double doors, so that the first door could be opened from the inside of the plane, then closed, and then the second door opened, so that the well-known suction phenomenon could not occur, drawing everything and everyone out of the plane. This double-door element was used by the famous American robber and blackmailer, D. B. Cooper. After he got the money and released the passengers, he ordered the crew to take off and wait for further instructions. He also said nobody was allowed to leave the cabin without his permission, and he would kill the first one who dared. After they waited quite a while for instructions about where to fly, one of the stewardesses took a risk and entered the passenger seating area. But it was totally empty, although the doors and windows were firmly closed. It turns out Cooper had used the advantage of the double doors. He went into the middle door space, then closed the first door, opened the second and parachuted out. With the money! He was never caught.

I was not interested in money, but the double doors seemed ideal to me for throwing leaflets. That is why I chose the Boeing 727. I was fortunate enough to meet a stewardess who had been on that flight with D. B. Cooper. She told me in great detail how the entire action unfolded, never suspecting the source of my interest for Cooper and the Boeing 727. The first blow to my plan took place when I learned from the pilot, after I had taken control of our plane, that after the Cooper events, the doors were altered on that type of plane. Leaflets could no longer be thrown from the plane. What’s more, because of the possible danger that the leaflets could be sucked into the motor, they could not be thrown in any other way, either. So, we had to put a second plane in the air in Montreal. From there we then headed for Europe.

I did need a certain amount of money for the action I had planned. This was fairly simple; a close friend gave me 10,000 dollars without my having to explain any details about the action. He had complete trust in me, and I felt information should be given out sparingly even to the participants in the action. It was enough for them to know the basic plan; the details were known only to me. Julie knew the most, but even she did not know there was a real bomb in the locker of the train station. Frane Pesut, one of the participants, said he was ready to help Croatia in any way without knowing the details. Slobodan Vlasic also knew about the action in greater detail, but did not know the explosive was fake. He was the most knowledgeable in assembling explosives, so I gave him the task of assembling all the different parts of the alleged ‘bomb’ in the plane’s bathroom, which he did, thinking it was real. Frane’s finger even turned blue from holding the switch for thirty-two hours!

Why did I not tell them everything? First, I knew we were all going to prison, since we planned to surrender after the media printed the leaflets and threw them over certain cities. This surrender was supposed to be one of the key elements of the action. After our surrender and after the passengers had spoken, we hoped, given the humaneness of our behavior toward them, that the whole world would know of the dictatorship in Croatia and nobody would be able to say that we, fighters for Croatian freedom, acted like cold-blooded terrorists, although the hijacking itself was a drastic action. I thought my co-defendants would have an easier defense after the surrender and receive a lesser sentence the less they knew of my intentions. Second, I wanted to have the whole action under control. I was afraid that if there had been real explosives in the plane, some unforeseen circumstance could lead to an accident and harm innocent victims. This was out of the question! On the other hand, if it was known the explosives were not real, something could also go wrong. One of us could expose this through our behavior, get panicky or something. Third, why hide it? At that time, I was quite paranoid, like most political emigrants. The Yugoslav Secret Service harassed us, spied on us, killed us, infiltrated into our ranks. Therefore, a secret you haven’t shared with anyone remains yours alone and you are its master; otherwise, it controls you.

The preparations went according to plan. In the spring, Julie and I traveled to Europe to meet with Bruno. He accepted the task of writing The Call for Dignity and Freedom. Julie hoped that Bruno, who was older and more mature, would maybe talk me out of the action. Of course, that did not happen. We spent most of our time at the Boden Lake. Julie had even gone to Herzegovina. It presented a certain risk, but she as an American could afford it. That June in 1976 was the last time I saw Bruno. They murdered him two years later when I was already in prison serving a life sentence.

Julie typed the leaflet text on a friend’s typewriter, Marijan Gabelica. I knew the police would investigate this so I did not attempt to hide this fact. It is true that Gabelica was the best defense. Before launching the action, we stopped at his place and returned the typewriter. When the police questioned me, I told them whose typewriter it had been. Gabelica really had no idea why I needed the typewriter. And since he didn’t know, they were unable to charge him with anything.

We bought the pots in a market and wrapped them up as gifts before going to the airport. We said we were going to a friend’s wedding. The metal detectors could not detect the clay, and even if they had found it in a baggage search, they would not have suspected anything. It might have seemed bizarre that I was carrying clay with me, but they would not have considered it a dangerous substance. Regardless of all my security measures, I still was unsure whether I was being followed or under suspicion, so I spent the day and night before the action bar hopping so I’d be seen ‘drinking’, and finally went to bed at dawn. Just in case I was being followed, I was sure nobody in his right mind would think that I could have performed such an action as a hijacking after such a ‘wild’ night.

The whole action was based upon a very nuanced psychological exercise. For more than thirty hours we were in absolute control of the situation in the plane, as well as holding several governments at bay, throwing leaflets, and dictating the printing of the leaflets in leading world media while flying over two continents – all without so much as a nail file in our pockets. If the fatal case with Officer Murray had not occurred, it would have been the most successful and unblemished hijacking in history. As it was, it left within me and the others a bitter taste, a deep regret and remorse that will follow us all our days.

Well-intentioned people have often asked me why I had to leave explosives in the locker at the train station. It seemed to them a senseless and unnecessary addition to a well thought-out plan. But this is not so. The explosives in the locker were every bit as important a part of the plan as the clay in the pots. It was intended to give credibility to my negotiations with the American authorities, the agents, and the police. The pots we carried with us were identical to the pot left in the locker, except that in ours there was clay, and in the other real explosives. Without this bomb, someone might believe we were bluffing. Besides that, it was my intention in the beginning to present ourselves as dangerous terrorists not to be fooled with, because that was the only way our demands would be met. Therefore, the bomb was an important element in the overall plan.

However, it is difficult to live with the knowledge that an innocent person died as a collateral victim of an idealistic action, for which he had no idea or interest. The issue of accidental, innocent victims is one that is always considered when an action with dangerous elements is undertaken. And I gave the most thought of all in my planning to this aspect of the action. That is why, after all, the hijacking took place without using any weapons whatsoever. But a tragedy happened where it was least expected, where there was not, it seemed, even a theoretical chance that things would go wrong.

I have already written about how I am almost positive that certain agencies were involved in the death of Officer Murray. The hijacking surprised both Americans and the Yugoslav Secret Police, and it would be difficult to prove that there was some kind of agreement between the two to compromise the action. But I am convinced there was. I claim this not to free myself from guilt. Guilt is above all a moral category. I have absolved the legal, judicial aspect of guilt through my 32 year-long imprisonment that I served longer than countless murderers, rapists, and career criminals. The moral aspect of my guilt is left to my own conscience and to the Almighty, regardless of whether Murray’s death was caused by the negligence of those who detonated the bomb, or a diversion by certain intelligence agencies. I placed the explosives in the locker and I carry guilt for the death they caused, regardless of what happened after their removal to the detonation site four hours later.

So, I am not trying to absolve myself from guilt by means of some later reconstruction, but I truly believe that there was involvement by people who wanted at all costs to compromise the entire action. There seemed to be considerable concern and uneasiness among the American agencies as well. Several New York Times articles (September 12 and 14, 1976), only days after the hijacking, wrote of the ‘painstaking evaluations’ undertaken by the head of the bomb section in the wake of the ‘first such fatality in 37 years’. The department head acknowledged that “none of these experts wore protective gear when they approached the device… as they were required to under police regulations”, including Officer Murray, who was described as ‘a gung ho cop who was one of the first to take on a dangerous task’. However, ‘the cause of the explosion eluded them,’ but not the answer to the question of why the officers were not wearing required protective gear. ‘What clearly perplexed the bomb squad… was why the device failed to respond to impulses generated by the remote control mechanism that the police normally use to detonate explosives in the demolition pit.’ One theory the police pursued, according to the NYT article, ‘was that the remote control gadget did activate the bomb several minutes after it was supposed to, just as officer Murray and the others approached the device.’ This would be the exact scenario I had discussed with Ames: the frequency of the remote control device was overridden and disabled, and at the very moment the officers were bending over the bomb, all without protective gear, another ‘player’ with a different game plan activated the device. My discussions with Ames gave me even more concrete knowledge of the probability and logic of my conclusions. Of course I deeply mourn the death of the innocent police officer, but I’ve thought seriously and often about the entire case, and it always seemed to me that there was a dark shadow of the Yugoslav Secret Police, UDBA, hanging over it.

(Editor note: Two years after this book was first published in Croatia, an American intelligence expert and former NSA analyst, John Schindler, released the first well-documented and credible expose of the long-term UDBA-FBI connections and their collaboration in the United States and elsewhere (The Observer, January 4, 2016). This confirmed the possibility, even probability, that the explosion at the Bronx detonation site in our case could well have been sabotage:

Why Hasn’t Washington Explained the 1975 LaGuardia Airport Bombing?

During the hijacking, I spent most of the time in the pilot’s cabin. Julie and Matanic communicated most with the passengers. Pesut and Vlasic represented a kind of understated threat; at least, that was how we intended the passengers view them. When I learned from the pilot that leaflets could not be thrown from the plane we were in, the situation became more complicated, but I did not despair. In fact, the entire time I had the feeling I was keeping the situation under perfect control. I knew the police had confirmed the explosives in the locker were genuine so I was not concerned that someone would get the idea we had hijacked the plane totally unarmed. Actually, in dangerous actions, this is usually the case – when the plan is made, the decision reached, and the action launched, one simply functions according to plan.

Then the shock came in Paris, when we got the news that a police officer had died. At first, I did not want to believe it; I thought the intelligence services had printed a special, false edition of the New York Times in order to destroy our morale. I sent Julie from the plane to call certain phone numbers and confirm the truth of this news. When I learned it was really true, it was clear to me that the action was over. There would be no further throwing of leaflets over Zagreb and Solin, where at that time the 1300-year anniversary of Christianity in Croatia was being celebrated. When I had been planning the hijacking, among several symbolic dates I had decided on this one. The knowledge that an innocent person had become a victim and a human life lost led to our immediate surrender. It was probably the most difficult day in my life, and I have had thousands of extremely difficult days. The intensity of feelings I experienced in just one day was immeasurable. From the belief of having a situation under perfect control, that I was doing something significant for the ideals I had fought for my entire life, and then to extreme desolation that things had taken such an utterly unexpected turn.

I did not completely despair, though, because what was begun had to be brought to an end. The surrender took place in an orderly fashion and without panic. First the passengers exited, along with my colleagues. The pilot and I remained until the end. Although the police ordered the pilot to come out before I did, he refused to do so, suspecting the Special Forces would shoot me. He insisted we leave together; he even put his arm around my shoulder so that, if that had been their intention, they would not be able to shoot me without endangering his life as well.

Then he gave the journalists gathered around the plane this widely reported statement: ‘This drama is over for the crew and travelers, but for Taik and his comrades it has only just begun.’ Many years later, I was flying from Split to Zagreb. As I passed the pilot in the aisle, he recognized me and asked with a wry smile, ‘So where are we flying today, Mr. Busic?’ The sincere humor in the voice of this man reminded me of the captain of the hijacked plane. I would say I am one of the few hijackers who has only had good experiences with pilots. Zvonko Bušić”

(Republished by Ina Vukic with permission)

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