My grateful journey back from the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648
On Thanksgiving weekend in November 1985, Jackie Nink Pflug was a passenger on EgyptAir Flight 648 en route from Athens to Cairo when it was hijacked shortly after takeoff. After the plane landed in Malta, millions watched in horror as the hijackers singled out Israeli and American citizens for execution. Early on Sunday, Jackie was shot in the head at point-blank range, pushed out of the plane, and left for dead on the tarmac.
The hijacking was just the beginning of Jackie’s remarkable journey. In the months and years ahead, she would wage a valiant struggle to cope with her brain injury and resulting epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
This is an excerpt from her memoir, Miles to Go Before I Sleep: My Grateful Journey Back form the Hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648.
God, I Need This Rain to Stop
A bang, a flash, and down I went. It all happened so fast. Tumbling and floating, floating and tumbling. I was moving in a slow motion haze. It felt as if a massive surge of electricity was jolting through my skull. Splashes of light and color, a strange feeling of heaviness, a hazy numbness. It felt as though my eyes were pushed into the back of my head.
Then I was going down, down, down — into what?
I never heard the sound of my body crashing down the metal staircase like I had when the passengers before me were shot, but I knew I was falling.
Then it stopped.
Where am I? Is this heaven? Is heaven hard?
I was lying on a gray slab of concrete. I didn’t feel anything as I fell twenty-five feet down the metal stairs onto the tarmac. Yet I was still conscious when my head hit the ground.
I don’t know how much time went by, but I eventually opened my eyes — ever so slowly. I looked up and saw white, puffy clouds. I thought, How strange this is all happening on such a beautiful day.
Then I quickly shut my eyes again. I’m not dead, am I? How could this be? Am I hurt? How bad? I don’t know.
I was disappointed to find myself still on earth. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I hadn’t slept for so long, keenly aware that each hour might be my last.
I’m so tired. I thought this was going to be over. I just want to sleep. How much longer do I have to hang on?
I was sprawled facedown on the airport tarmac in Malta with a bullet in my head, my blood slowly draining onto the cement. My head was facing left, my left arm was under my chest, and my right arm was free and extended over my head. I was lying with my head sideways, at the foot of the metal staircase, so I could see the wheel of the plane through one eye. I felt a dull ache in my head and heard an irritating, high-pitched sound coming from the plane.
The first thing I had to do was keep myself from swallowing my tongue, because I kept trying to do that. I had to pee real bad, too. On the plane, I had decided it was just too risky to ask the hijackers for permission to use the bathroom. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Yet I was afraid the hijackers might notice the wet spot on my pants and the concrete and realize that I was still alive. I had to risk it. . . .
Stay calm, just stay calm. Think. That’s right, think. What do I do? Don’t move. Whatever you do, don’t move. Remember what happened to the Israeli woman. She moved, and she’s dead.
Bang! Bang! Bang! One of the hijackers had pumped her quivering body full of lead. The metallic ring still echoed in my ears.
Keep your head down on the cement. Don’t look up. Play dead and you’ll live. Keep calm. Keep perfectly still. Don’t move a muscle. Shallow breaths. Stay cool.
I was grateful that I was wearing an extra-large sized T-shirt. It meant that the hijackers couldn’t tell my chest was moving while I breathed in and out.
My body was shutting down, my mind starting to fade. I was slipping away. The bullet in my head must have gone in too deep. I wasn’t going to make it. I couldn’t focus or think straight. I was losing control. Thoughts were drifting by.
For the next few hours I kept passing in and out of consciousness and sleep. I was so tired. Every time I came to, I expected to wake up in a new world. My thoughts were Okay, God, you can take me. I’m ready to go.
The next thing I knew, a bright whiteness was all around me. It was my paternal grandmother, Grandma Nora Nink. I didn’t speak. She was a whiteness to me, but I knew it was her. Grandma didn’t use earth words to communicate, but I knew what she was saying. “Come, Jackie. It’s time.” She was calling me to join her. As she did, I felt my spirit leaving my body. I saw my body lying facedown on the tarmac. The roaring jet engines were suddenly silent.
Grandma Nink was one of the people I most loved and looked up to in the world. Grandma was a small, thin-boned, German woman. Her head was slightly bent from osteoporosis, but her eyes sparkled with life. She was lots of fun to be with. She was so calm and patient with me. That made a real difference. At home, I always felt jumpy and nervous, afraid of spilling milk or knocking things over. Mom always said I was accident prone.
When I was with Grandma, I didn’t get that jittery feeling. I settled down. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. I loved helping Grandma cook. She patiently showed me how to do things such as cut cucumbers with a big kitchen knife. And she didn’t hover over me while I learned. She showed me how to do one cucumber, then let me do the rest.
I was so sad when she died, two years ago, at the age of ninety-three. But when she died, I wasn’t worried. I knew she was going to a beautiful place.
Now, we were together again. . . .
Grandma and I were pure spirits without bodies. She was a whiteness to me. I moved toward her. I felt the edge of our spirits softly merge, as if we were touching fingertips. The two of us gently floated through a long dark passage — like a tunnel — toward a shimmering bright light. I knew what was happening: I was leaving earth.
It feels so good being here, in the light, with Grandma. I was so sad when she died. Now I know she is okay. I want to go with her.
Being in the light was a tremendous feeling. I was wrapped in a blanket of perfect love, perfect joy, and perfect peace. I was surrounded and filled with perfect knowledge. I knew all things. When I was in my body earlier, I felt alone, afraid, sad, and mad. But when I left my body, all emotions and feelings attached to the world left.
This must be heaven.
I wanted to go further, but something held me back. I didn’t use words, but there was a clear “knowingness” about what I needed to do.
“I love you,” my spirit was saying, “but it’s not time to go yet.”
Grandma didn’t try to stop me or change my mind. She didn’t look sad or disappointed. Instead, her spirit just continued drifting toward the light. I quickly found myself back in my body.
I startled at the roar of the jet engines and felt the hardness of the tarmac pressing against my head. Why am I here? I thought. Then I remembered. I was in a hijacking and I was shot in the head. The dull, heavy feeling reminded me. If you’re shot in the head, I knew, either you don’t live or you don’t live normally. Either way, I thought, I’ll take it. The important thing is not to get shot again, like the Israeli woman was when she moved.
Stay calm. Don’t move. Play dead.
Though I felt weak and alone, I kept feeling something else — a flow of energy and a voice inside saying, Be still, you’re going to be okay, just be still.
When I was in my body, I was full of worry, fear, concern. When I left it, all that went away. I was no longer attached to a body that could feel that. I remembered the feeling of deep peace.
My left hand, still underneath my body, hurt after bearing my weight for so long. I was afraid to move it, afraid that the hijackers would see me. Eventually, I moved my hand and nobody saw it.
I continued to drift in and out of consciousness and sleep.
* * *
It must have been mid-afternoon when it started to rain again. I felt a sharp, throbbing pain in my head as a cold, unpleasant drizzle seeped into my bullet wound. The pain was so intense that I didn’t think I could stand to lie there without moving if it continued.
I started talking to God again. God, I need this rain to stop. It will be difficult to lie here, still, with the rain.
Almost instantly, the rain stopped.
This only happens in the movies! I thought. I fought hard not to smile or let the tears of joy flow from the knowledge that I was being protected.
At some point, I heard something coming toward me. It was faint at first, then grew louder. What’s that noise? It sounds like a truck. What is it? I was really curious about the vehicle. Very gently, very carefully, I opened my eyes. All I could see were black shoes scurrying around me. I quickly shut my eyes again.
The color black was very significant to me. The hijackers were wearing black shoes, slacks, and masks over their faces.
Oh my God, it’s the hijackers! They’re going to kill me. Stay calm. Don’t move. Keep playing dead. It’s your only chance.
“Okay, pick that one up!” I heard a man yell, as if through a far-off megaphone.
Suddenly, two men lifted me up by the armpits and started dragging my body across the runway. I made sure my body was dead weight, so the hijackers would keep thinking I was dead. I didn’t dare open my eyes to see who they were or where we were going. My only chance was to keep playing dead and wait for the right moment to make a break. Little did I realize that I couldn’t walk, much less run, from my attackers. But it was my only chance.
Keep still. Keep still. Keep playing dead.
They dragged me about thirty feet, then stopped. “Let’s do this one right,” one of the men said. “One! — two! — three!”
The two men lifted me up and slammed me facedown on a metal bed. It had ridges on it and they were filled with water. I remember thinking, this is really rude laying me in all this water. They didn’t know I was alive. I just lay there trying not to breathe.
They lifted me up on the metal bed and shoved me inside a van. The doors closed and we started moving. I thought I was still with the hijackers. What now? What do I do? Where are they taking me? How do I get out of here? Please, God, I need Your help.
I kept hearing, Be still. You’re going to be okay, but just be still. I was lying facedown, with my bullet wound exposed. The man riding in back with me, on my right side, didn’t like looking at the gaping hole in my head. So he took my body and flipped me over.
When he did, I gasped for air.
“She’s alive! She’s alive!” he screamed.
Dear God, I thought, they know I’m alive. Now they’ll finish me off.
I waited for the final gunshot to end my life.
More screaming and yelling.
Terrified, I slowly opened my eyes. But I couldn’t see anything.
“Are you guys the good guys or the bad guys?” I softly cried.
“Honey, we’re the medics,” the young man said. “You’re going to be okay.”
The van was heading to the morgue. Now, I felt the vehicle spin quickly around as the driver made a beeline back to the airport control tower and a waiting ambulance.
I heard men talking but couldn’t see their faces. My dark skin and bruises made it hard for the rescuers to identify me. “She’s Filipino,” one said.
“No, I’m American,” I said, hoarsely. “I’m Jackie Pflug.”
Near the control tower, I was briefly examined by a Dr. A. J. Psaila, an American trained surgeon and head of surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital in G’mangia, Malta. Medics rushed me to the emergency room at St. Luke’s. I was so tired, but so relieved. My prayer was answered. I was going to live. I thanked God.
Alive, but What Kind of Life?
Scott and the girls’ volleyball team were still in Athens while I was being hijacked on Saturday night. They won the tournament that night, a few hours after I left for Cairo. Their victory celebration extended late into the night. Before going to bed, they planned to meet at the Acropolis at eight the next morning. From there, they’d board a tour bus to do some last-minute sightseeing before flying back to Cairo that afternoon.
Scott arrived at the rendezvous point early, about 7:45 A.M., to greet the tired girls as they straggled in. About half the team had arrived at the checkpoint when Tonya Smith, an eleventh grader at CAC, pulled up in a cab where Scott was waiting.
Tonya walked up to Scott and jokingly said, “Well, we don’t have to worry about getting hijacked. An EgyptAir plane was hijacked last night.”
Hijackings were so common in the Middle East that year that people often joked about the possibility of being in one.
“What!” Scott said, in stunned disbelief.
“EgyptAir was hijacked last night,” she repeated.
This time the incredible news sank in.
“Jackie was on EgyptAir!” he shouted.
Scott knew right away that it was my flight that had been hijacked. I’d changed my reservations so many times, but he’d remembered that I was on the last EgyptAir flight leaving Athens on Saturday night.
“I’m out of here,” Scott told Peter, the other CAC chaperone in Athens.
Scott hailed a cab to the EgyptAir office at the Athens airport. On the way to the airport, he listened to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news report on the hijacking:
Late last evening at 9:37 P.M., EgyptAir Flight 648 was hijacked by members of a terrorist group calling themselves “The Egypt Revolution.” The hijackers’ original destination was said to be Libya, but the plane was low on fuel and was forced to land at Malta’s Luqa Airport.
The hijackers demanded fuel to be able to continue on to Libya. They threatened to begin executing passengers every fifteen minutes until their demands were met. Two Israeli women were shot and thrown from the plane. One apparently managed to survive.
An American, Patrick Baker, was also shot. His condition remains unknown. Two American women are also on board: Scarlett Rogencamp, of Oceanside, California, and Jackie Nink Pflug, of Pasadena, Texas. Negotiations for the release of the ninety-eight hostages continue. . . .
When Scott arrived at the EgyptAir office, they were expecting him. He spent several frustrating hours at the EgyptAir counter, waiting for more news but learning nothing new. The only thing EgyptAir could verify was that I was on the flight. They didn’t know any details beyond that.
Scott hung out there for two or three hours, then got fed up and left. Before leaving, he heard news reports that I’d been shot in the face and had a broken nose. It was still very sketchy.
* * *
The early hours of the hijacking were hard on my family and friends back home. My parents learned of the hijacking from the Saturday night news.
My mom had a sinking feeling as she watched the images on her TV screen. I’d written a week earlier to tell them I’d be in Greece with Scott and the girls’ volleyball team that Thanksgiving weekend.
“Oh, my God, I think Jackie is on that plane!” she said.
During the first few hours of the crisis, information was incomplete. There was confusion about exactly what happened. From the early news accounts, they still didn’t know if I was, indeed, a passenger on the plane.
No one in my family knew exactly who to call for more information on the hijacking. Gloria called Channel 2 and said, “I think my sister is on that plane.”
“Where do your parents live?” the Channel 2 reporter asked, smelling a news story in the making.
“I can’t tell you that,” Gloria said.
A reporter from Channel 2 called back to say that I was on the plane. The reporter also contacted the U.S. State Department and, from then on, the State Department stayed in close contact with my family.
Barb Wilson called my friend Debbie Reno to ask if she was watching television. “You might want to turn on CNN,” Barb said. “They have something about Jackie on.”
“What?” Debbie said.
“The plane Jackie was on was hijacked,” Barb reported, “and she has been shot. They think she might be dead.”
When Debbie got off the phone, she called a prayer hot line at her church to pray for me.
Mom and Dad only got an hour’s sleep on Saturday night. A spokesperson from the State Department called every thirty minutes with updates on the hijacking.
The early news offered little comfort.
At about 2 A.M., the phone rang again. My dad answered.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the State Department spokesperson said, “but your daughter is dead.”
“What does she look like?” Dad asked.
“She’s blonde,” he answered.
“No, she’s not,” he said, “Jackie is dark.”
On further checking, the State Department discovered it had confused me with Scarlett Rogencamp, who had light hair.
For my parents, the ordeal was far from over. The news kept changing so quickly. My parents went from hearing that I was dead, to hearing that I might have just broken my nose, to hearing that I was okay and on my way to the hospital.
* * *
Scott didn’t believe the early reports because, in his mind, the officials didn’t seem confident about the accuracy of their information. Someone at the airport offered Scott a ride to the American embassy. His goal was to somehow reach Malta and be near me while the drama unfolded. Scott knew that the American embassy was the place to go for help in a situation like this.
The embassy was already on top security alert. All vehicles entering the embassy compound were checked for bombs by security guards.
At first, it appeared that Scott couldn’t get to Malta. Embassy officials told him that Malta’s tiny airport would be closed until the hijacking was over. He might have to watch the drama unfold on television.
Embassy officials continued to pass on any information they had about the hijacking. The red tape, bureaucratic nonsense, and frustration were getting to Scott. He lost his cool and shouted at one embassy secretary. Soon after, things started to change. A down-to-earth, straight-shooting embassy official read the anguish on Scott’s face and calmly introduced himself.
“One way or another, we’ll get you to Malta,” he told Scott. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got the ambassador’s jet on standby.”
Though Edwin Beffel, a first secretary at the embassy, was powerless to speed up the time frame of when Scott could leave, Scott felt better now that he was finally dealing with someone who acted like a human being.
Scott continued to get reports on the Maltese government’s lack of progress in negotiating with the hijackers. Information about the fate of individual passengers, however, remained sketchy. Scott, and the rest of the world, couldn’t know what was going on inside the plane.
Scott spent Sunday afternoon restlessly pacing back and forth in a hotel room a couple of blocks from the American embassy, waiting, hoping, and praying that I’d be okay. He continued listening to a stream of news reports, including some reporting that I was dead.
Late that afternoon, Scott collapsed on the bed for a few hours of fitful sleep. Fearing the worst, he tossed and turned, and prayed for my life.
Suddenly, a loud crack of thunder — the loudest he’d ever heard — jolted him awake. He saw the brightest flash of lightning he’d ever seen.
Seconds later, the phone rang. It was Beffel. He had a report that I’d just been shot in the face and pushed out of the plane. That report seemed to jibe with what EgyptAir officials had told him earlier. Maybe they had gotten it right after all, Scott thought. . . .
Beffel told him to head over to the embassy as fast as he could.
The loud crack of thunder and lightning coinciding with the call from Beffel seemed to confirm Scott’s worst fear: I was dead. Scott thought his role now would be to help with the process of identifying my body and bringing it home for burial.
Scott’s first thought was to call his parents in Hopkins, Minnesota. His mom and dad, June and Greg Pflug, were both on the line. They’d been watching the news on television and tried to support Scott.
“I just got a call from the embassy,” he said. “They told me Jackie has been shot in the face. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead.”
“Oh my God,” June Pflug said. Then she started to cry.
Scott couldn’t talk long; he had to get to the embassy.
At the embassy, however, there wasn’t much more anyone could do. A few hours later, State Department officials were less clear about who was actually shot. It might have been one of the Israeli women or Scarlett Rogencamp.
Scott was miffed about the confusion. He was angry at the embassy personnel for planting in his mind the thought that I was dead.
Beffel was doing everything he could to get Scott to Malta. He was pushing hard to get a plane, but no one could land in Malta until the hijacking was over. There was also some bad weather.
There wasn’t much more Scott could do. He had to sit tight and wait. Scott was helped by a woman who was vice-consul at the American embassy. She was a real caretaker and sweetheart, encouraging and sympathizing, just like a mom would be. She also helped Scott find a place to stay on Sunday night while he anxiously waited for a flight to Malta. She introduced Scott to a gunnery sergeant employed at the embassy who generously opened his home to Scott.
* * *
Early on Sunday morning U.S. time, the phone rang again at my parents’ house in suburban Houston. My parents felt a mixture of dread and relief. Would this call inform them that I was dead or alive? My father answered. It was the State Department.
“Another woman was just shot, but we don’t know who it is,” the U.S. government official reported.
A few minutes later, the State Department called back to confirm that I was shot in the head and taken to St. Luke’s.
On Sunday afternoon there was a knock at their door. A reporter from Channel 26 stood at the door, asking to come in and shoot some footage of my family sitting down for Sunday dinner.
“No,” Mom said. “We’d like to be together just as a family. We’d like to say our prayers for Jackie in private.”
To her credit, the reporter understood and left.
My sister Gloria’s husband said a simple prayer. “Lord, we just pray that Jackie will come through the hijacking okay and that we can hear from her soon. Bring her back to us safe. Amen.”
Debbie and Barb came over to my parents’ house to help answer the telephone, field the reporters, and provide support.
* * *
After I gasped for breath in the van, and the van reversed course for St. Luke’s, the medics immediately began cutting off my blood-stained blue jeans and T-shirt. I couldn’t see what they were doing, but I heard the sound of ripping fabric.
Darn, there go my favorite blue jeans! was the last thought I had before everything went blank. I must have passed out, because I don’t remember riding to the hospital.
When I came to again, in the emergency room at St. Luke’s, I was lying on a metal hospital bed. I was dressed in a hospital gown. Medical technicians were sticking needles in my arm.
I closed my eyes briefly and, when I opened them again, I was staring into a pair of soft brown eyes.
A young man, about my age, hovered over me, wielding an electric razor.
“I’ve got to shave your hair,” he said, simply.
He pressed the buzzing instrument to my head and started shearing my dark brown curls. The sound was almost soothing until, suddenly, I jumped.
“Ow! That hurts!” I winced. I was really out of it — just barely able to hold a conversation. He’d run the rotating blades over my bullet wound.
“You have to be careful.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to go over it. I have to get the hair around it,” he said, apologetically. “I’ll try to go easier. You’re going into surgery, and we need to shave your head to reduce the chance of infection.”
Every few seconds, he’d stop shaving and let me take a breath. Then he’d announce, “Okay, I’m going back over it again.”
My muscles tightened as I braced myself for more pain.
After the young man finished, another medical aide came in to finish the job with a smaller razor. He also gave me some shots to calm me down and reduce my pain.
A serious man with glasses who looked like a doctor walked over to my bedside. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m Dr. Lawrence Zrinzo. You’re going to be all right. We just need you to sign something.”
“It’s a release giving your consent to the operation, relieving the hospital of liability.”
I felt dazed and out of it, but the humor of the situation didn’t escape me. “Here I am with a bullet in my head and you want me to sign something?” I laughed.
“Well, I can’t see well,” I informed him.
“That’s okay. We’ll just hold it for you.”
The doctor put a pen in my hand, and I asked him to steer my hand to the spot where he wanted me to sign. My pen contacted the hard surface of a clipboard and I moved it in broad strokes through the air, like I used to write my name with sparklers on the Fourth of July.
I could only see pieces of the doctor’s face, but I felt his reassuring hand on my shoulder. I sensed his positive energy and could tell he was a very sweet, caring man.
I had lost some blood, Dr. Zrinzo reported, but not enough to require a transfusion. He assured me that I was going to be okay. In a few minutes, I started feeling the effects of the anesthesia I’d been given.
The doctor and nurse walked on opposite sides of my bed as they wheeled me into surgery.
“And to think, we just got our equipment last week!” the nurse said, laughing.
What does she mean by that? I wondered, just before passing out.
The doctors at St. Luke’s didn’t know my medical history. They didn’t know that I had a rare allergic reaction to succinylcholine chloride — a muscle relaxant commonly used along with surgical anesthesia. When I had my appendix out as a little girl, the doctors had given me succinylcholine and I had stopped breathing. If they gave it to me again, I could die.
My mom knew my medical history. When she heard that I’d been shot, she immediately thought about the danger of an allergic reaction. She asked my sister Mary to call Pasadena Bayshore Medical Center and tell them to forward my medical records to Malta.
Thanks to Mom and Mary, doctors in Malta used the right anesthesia.
* * *
On Monday morning, November 25, Scott was still in Athens waiting to fly to Malta. Embassy officials were in constant contact with ground observers and officials inMalta who would be able to report exactly when Egypt’s crack team of “Thunderbolt” commandos stormed the plane.
At about 8 P.M. Sunday night, the commandos were ordered to strike. Less than an hour later, the hijacking was over. The personal ordeal for survivors and family members who had lost loved ones, however, was just beginning.
Some time after the storming of the plane, the U.S. military attaché in Greece was cleared to fly Scott to Malta. Capt. William Nordeen, the U.S. naval and defense attaché at the embassy, drove Scott in a sleek, black bulletproof limousine to the Athens airport, where the U.S. ambassador’s twelve-passenger jet was ready and waiting.
A former navy pilot who had just begun his assignment in Athens that August, Captain Nordeen, like Scott, was from Minnesota. Nordeen and the other crew member were like big brothers to Scott, as they helped calm his nerves with some small talk.
On the way to Malta, Scott rode up near the cockpit.
It was a dangerous mission. There was no time to submit a flight plan for approval, so the pilots risked colliding with scheduled air traffic. To lower the odds of a midair crash, they skimmed the ground — over the water, but under the radar — all the way to Malta.
There wasn’t a lot of talking during the flight. Most of the time, Scott sat quietly, wondering what he should be getting ready for. The details on my situation were still sketchy.
“I didn’t know if Jackie was alive or dead, whether she’d been shot in the face or had broken bones in her face. I didn’t know what to expect,” Scott said.
By the time Scott landed in Valletta late Monday morning, I was in surgery at St. Luke’s. Scott was cleared by Maltese authorities and assigned a local official to escort him to the hospital. By this time, the atmosphere at the airport had calmed down. It wasn’t a three-ring circus.
* * *
Officials from the U.S. embassy in Malta and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) later debriefed us on what happened during the hijacking and rescue effort.
Malta had refused to let the U.S counter-terrorist experts land at Luqa airport. Delta Force, the military’s crack antiterrorist commando team, never made it to Malta, either; three of its planes broke down on the way.
The hijackers had agreed to let medics pick up my body (they presumed I was dead) in exchange for food.
The final minutes of the drama unfolded while I was on my way to the hospital and in surgery. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered twenty-five Egyptian commandos to storm the aircraft. The U.S.-trained team used grenades to blow a hole in the rear of the plane, where the hijackers put most of the Arab passengers, touching off a fierce gun battle. The spray of bullets struck one of the plane’s fuel tanks, causing it to explode. This sent a fireball blazing through the cabin, which was still filled with hostages.
While surgeons hovered over my body, doing their best to remove the bullet in my head and skull fragments from my brain, smoke and flames engulfed the runway in a dark, brooding cloud of human misery.
Fifty-eight people perished in the smoke and flames, including eight Palestinian children and their parents, and the hijacker who wore glasses. Everyone at the front of the plane, where I had been seated, died in the fire. The huge death toll made ours the deadliest hijacking and rescue in aviation history. The prevailing opinion was that the commandos used too much force in storming the plane. Not so many people needed to die.
By a strange quirk of fate, only two of the five passengers shot in the head actually died from their wounds. Patrick Baker, Tamar Artzi (the Israeli woman who didn’t play dead), and I all lived, while Nitzan Mendelson and Scarlett Rogencamp died. It didn’t make any sense. We were all shot in the head at point-blank range. How could anyone have lived through that?
“What kind of bullets were these?” Scott asked a U.S. embassy official in Malta.
“The bullets were homemade; the hijackers packed their own rounds,” the official said. “They were regular bullets, but they packed their own gunpowder in them. Some were stronger and better packed than others. Nitzan and Scarlett got good ones.” The bullet I got was strong enough to do damage, but not strong enough to kill me.
The hijackers had also been poor shots. The bullet they fired at Patrick only grazed the top of his head. The same happened with Tamar, who had a lot of hair at the time. Yet Tamar had been shot several times. How did she escape death? Tamar received only flesh wounds from the hijacker’s bullets. After being shot several times, she managed to roll underneath the plane. A few minutes later, she got up and ran to safety.
* * *
Three Maltese secret service agents greeted Scott at the hospital. They ushered him to the front desk where a nurse briefly explained that I’d been in surgery and would be unconscious for a while — but that he could come in and see me.
The hospital staff was on overload, struggling to deal with the massive number of dead and injured passengers from the plane. St. Luke’s was not equipped to handle that many people. Doctors set up makeshift intensive care units in the hallways to take care of survivors.
Secret service agents directed Scott into the regular intensive care unit at St. Luke’s, past a line of hospital carts with the sheet-covered bodies of those who died in the failed rescue effort. Intensive care was a small room with only eleven or twelve beds. Most of them were filled with other hijacking survivors.
Scott was in for several shocks. I was laid out on a bed with my head shaved and swathed in bandages; tubes were running in and out of my body. He expected to see my face all bruised up and was pleasantly surprised to see that I looked basically okay.
Scott looked back at the Maltese agents still standing behind him. One of the agents pointed to the adjacent bed and said, “That’s the guy who shot your wife. He’s the only hijacker who made it out alive.”
The straight-haired hijacker who shot each of us was lying in the bed next to me. His chest was bandaged and he was on a respirator. Capt. Hani Galal, our pilot, had hit him with a fire ax when the Egyptian commandos began their assault, and he was further wounded by bullets in the chest.
Malta is a small country with only one hospital near the main airport. All survivors of the hijacking, including the terrorist who murdered Scarlett Rogencamp and Nitzan Mendelson, had to be brought to St. Luke’s.
The Maltese official raised his eyebrow and, together with the other agents, left the room. Standing alone in the intensive care unit with me and the hijacker, Scott knew what the official had meant. To emphasize the point, they all bolted from the room at the same time and said, “If there’s anything you need — anything — just let us know.”
“In my mind, he was saying it was okay for me to kill the guy,” Scott later recalled. “I hadn’t even thought of that when I walked into the room. I had been so focused on Jackie’s condition that I wasn’t even mad that the hijacker was in the same room with Jackie. But when he gave me that weird look, he planted the thought in my mind.
“I knew Malta didn’t want him to live. They didn’t want to have to deal with the political pressures of jailing a worldwide terrorist and the hassle of making a prisoner exchange.
“I made a decision. If Jackie woke up as a vegetable, he was going to die. I was going to kill him. I had a plan. I was going to go over to him and rip the bandages off his chest and take out his heart. That was my plan. There was no doubt in my mind that that’s what I would have done too.”
These thoughts were troubling to Scott. He’d never hit anyone in his life, and now he was preparing to commit a cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It weighed heavily on him. “I felt almost pressured to do it if Jackie didn’t come through okay,” he said. “I couldn’t let anybody get away with that.”
* * *
That same Monday morning, the media descended on my parents’ house in suburban Houston. Reporters from CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN clamored for my parents’ reaction to the hijacking. It was a circus in the front yard as reporters shoved microphones in my parents’ faces and fired questions. News producers from New York wanted to bring Dan Rather’s news team in the house to film. But it was so crowded with reporters that my mom said no.
She remembered what had happened that previous summer when TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome was hijacked. Allyn Conwell, a businessman from Houston and one of the passengers, gained worldwide notoriety as a spokesperson for the hostages during that ordeal. His parents’ house in Houston was trashed by reporters covering the story. (Coincidentally, I had taught Allyn and his wife country western dancing when they lived in Cairo.) My mom didn’t want that to happen to her home.
She warned any reporters who did come inside to watch themselves. “I don’t want anything disturbed in here or moved around or anything,” she said.
There was no letup in media interest. Since the hijacking took place on Thanksgiving weekend, my story was especially poignant to the press. That same weekend, terrorists detonated a bomb that wounded thirty-four people just outside a crowded U.S. military complex in northern Frankfurt, Germany. It was the latest in a string of attacks against American military installations around the world.
The media was intrigued by another angle. It turned out that our red, white, and yellow EgyptAir jetliner with the call letters SU-AYK was the same plane that U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats had intercepted two months earlier when it was carrying the four terrorists responsible for the Achille Lauro hijacking. This plane was also hijacked in August 1976 by gunmen believed to be Libyan agents en route from Cairo to Luxor, Egypt. The plane was stormed by Egyptian “Leatherneck” commandos who rescued the passengers.
* * *
When I woke up after seven hours in surgery, Scott was standing by my bed in the intensive care unit, holding my hand.
“Hi, babe. Can you believe this happened?” I whispered.
He smiled and bent down to hug me.
I passed out again.
My condition was a big relief to Scott. I wasn’t drooling out of one side of my mouth or in some kind of hallucinogenic fog. And I wasn’t blind, as the doctors expected me to be. I seemed basically normal and alert.
I can deal with this, Scott thought to himself. He wouldn’t have to kill the hijacker after all.
Scott’s face was blurry when I looked up at him. But there was more to it; pieces of my visual field were also missing. I could only see straight ahead and to the right. Up, down, and to the left were blank. I figured the vision problem would clear up when my parents sent a new pair of contact lenses to replace those I’d lost in the hijacking. I rested and waited to hear from the doctors about the extent of my brain damage.
Over the next few days, several doctors came in to check on my progress. It took a while for them to get to me. The small hospital was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the tragedy they were suddenly dealing with. In addition to treating people who survived the storming of the plane, they had to perform autopsies on those who died of smoke inhalation, burns, and bullet wounds caused by the commando assault.
Eventually, Dr. Zrinzo, the surgeon who operated on me in Malta came in to explain my situation. He said there was an obvious entry wound in the right side of my head, about one-quarter inch in diameter, and the impact had blown a hole in my skull five inches wide. By some miracle he couldn’t explain, however, the bullet that broke through my skull hadn’t penetrated my brain. Instead, it had lodged in the skull and pushed skull fragments into my brain. During surgery, Dr. Zrinzo and the other doctors had cleaned out the wound and removed the bullet, along with skull fragments and brain tissue. Doctors grafted skin tissue from my right thigh to cover the gap in my head.
They really didn’t know what to expect when I woke up. The bullet destroyed much of the tissue in my brain that controls vision, and doctors thought I might wake up blind. If the bullet had moved a half inch either way in my head, I would have been paralyzed, Dr. Zrinzo said. In the hospital, they gave me a series of eye tests that confirmed what the doctors already suspected: I’d lost my left peripheral vision, my peripheral vision up, and my peripheral vision down in both eyes. If I wanted to see anything in those three places, the doctor said I'd have to look to my left, look up, and look down. I also suffered from extremely painful headaches, like migraines, anytime I shifted positions. A neurologist explained that a layer of protective gel inside our heads normally provides a soft cushion, or buffer, between the brain and the skull. In my case, the fluid had drained out the bullet hole in my head. That meant that whenever I moved, my brain pressed directly against my skull, causing the shooting pain.
As I gained the strength to sit up in bed and walk around, I had problems with my hearing. I was shot by my right ear and the surrounding brain tissue was swollen. Any loud sound, such as the closing of a door or the flushing of a toilet, was extremely painful. I felt a sharp, throbbing ache in both ears. When I flushed the toilet, I had to quickly put my hands over my ears and run out the door — or ask someone to flush for me. I couldn’t stand the noise. I had suffered a concussion to the middle ear, Dr. Zrinzo explained. For about a year, I often had to ask people to speak softly because loud voices hurt too.
I had other hearing difficulties. Doctors discovered that I’d lost some of my ability to hear high-pitched frequencies. Since speaking voices and most other sounds are transmitted at lower frequencies, it wasn’t a major problem.
Speaking was hard for me too. My jaw smashed hard against the tarmac when I was thrown from the plane. The force of the impact flowed from my head down into my neck. As a result, my jaw was partially locked. I could open it enough to eat, but not all the way. At first, I mostly drank liquids in the hospital.
I had torn ligaments in my neck from falling onto the tarmac and some black and blue marks, but no fractured arms or legs.
The full impact of all these injuries on my life was yet to be known. I felt lucky to be alive, but what kind of life would it be?
Scott handled all the telephone communications with my parents while I was still pretty out of it. He kept them informed of what was going on and what the doctors were telling him. My mom wanted to know how she and my dad could get to Malta. They both wanted to be by my side, but I didn’t want them to come. I was too tired and didn’t feel like having a lot of people around me. I didn’t want to see the hurt in their eyes. I needed some space — peace and quiet — to sort out what had happened. The doctors felt the same way.
* * *
As a special education teacher, I knew something was seriously wrong with my sight, hearing, and memory. In the hospital, I had to ask Scott, the doctors, and the nurses to speak slowly, one word at a time — and to repeat themselves — when they spoke to me. If someone said, “Go mow the lawn,”
I heard, “Go row the tawn.” I’d think, Why would you want me to go row the tawn?
I remember one nurse saying, “Go brush your teeth.”
I heard, “Go trush your teeth.” I didn’t get it. What did that mean?
“Say it again,” I said, “one word at a time.”
She said, “Go.”
I processed “go” — what does “go” mean?
What does “brush” mean?
I tried to remember what “your” was.
For crying out loud, this was hard!
Like many people who have had head injuries, strokes, or learning disabilities, I had memory problems and problems understanding simple spoken and written words. My long-term memory was just fine. I recalled my childhood, education, friends, places I’d been, books I’d read, every detail of the hijacking. But my short-term memory, the ability to hold on to things that are happening right now, like this sentence, wasn’t working.
* * *
Nurses and other aides in the hospital were very kind to me. They did everything they could to make me feel comfortable. Toward the end of my five-day stay in Malta, I was able to start eating some solid foods.
One time, they asked what I wanted to eat. Since I felt like I’d missed out on Thanksgiving Dinner, I asked for some turkey and dressing.
“We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” the nurse said in broken English. “Can you think of anything else you’d like?”
Hmm, I thought, what’s like turkey and dressing?
“Do you have any chicken and mashed potatoes?”
Her eyes lit up. “Yes! We can get you that.”
For lunch that day, the nurse brought in a plate of chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy. I was so excited. I smiled and laughed. “Thank you,” I said.
“This is really great!”
Seeing how much I appreciated the meal, that it brought a smile to my face, the nurses brought me chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner. They started serving me chicken and mashed potatoes around the clock — at every meal except breakfast. They’d come in and say, in broken English, “We got you chicken and mashed potatoes!” And their faces would just light up.
“Honey, you’ve got to say something,” Scott said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I ate other foods too. “I’ll just eat chicken and mashed potatoes,” I said.
This went on for about three days.
* * *
Before leaving the hospital in Malta and being transferred to a U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, I had to tell officials my story of what happened on the plane. I didn’t know why they needed it — they had reports from Patrick Baker and other passengers, but the Maltese police wouldn’t release me until they had mine as well. They wrote down everything I said.
Shortly after, they wheeled me out of the hospital. It was great to see the pretty blue sky again. Malta looked like a beautiful country. I wished that I’d been able to enjoy it under different circumstances. Scott and the U.S. ambassador to Malta, Gary Matthews, looked on as medical attendants hoisted me into the plane.
On the flight to Germany, Scott and I were the sole passengers on a USAF C-9 “Nightingale” transport plane, normally used to evacuate wartime casualties. I lay flat on a bed dangling from the ceiling in the cargo bay. I was so tired from the hijacking and the surgery that I slept much of the flight.
At one point, the copilot came back to visit with me. She looked so young, and I asked her when she started flying.
“I’ve been doing it a long time, ever since I was a little girl,” she said. “My father flew. Would you like to come up to the front?”
She led me to the cockpit and let me sit down in her seat and look out. When I started feeling weak, she helped me get back to my bed in the back.
* * *
We were en route to the second General Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, but a snowstorm forced the pilot to divert us to Rhein-Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt and the ninety-seventh General Hospital (the one that Captain Tesstrake and the TWA hostages flew into exactly five months earlier), where we stayed overnight.
The next morning, we continued on to Landstuhl, where I was admitted on the neurosurgery service.
The U.S. military took good care of us in Germany. They put Scott up in a barracks-style hotel on the base, near the hospital. After living in constant worry for nearly a week, and not sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time, Scott could finally slow down enough to feel. The doctors had assured us that I was going to be okay. Scott and I had talked long enough so that he felt happy and confident that I wasn’t going to be a vegetable.
He sat on a chair in his room, closed his eyes, and cried. After crying, Scott fell fast asleep. His body had released all the tension and worry.
The next morning when he came to the hospital, I could see that something in his eyes had changed. “What is it honey? What’s wrong? Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” he said. “I had a good cry last night, that’s all.”
I was still numb. I hadn’t cried about what happened to me yet. Obviously, there was another side to the story. I’d barely survived a horrible tragedy and was in a state of mental and emotional shock. During the hijacking, I stuffed down my emotions to cope with the trauma. I tried to close my eyes and ears to the horror of what was happening. It was too awful to watch.
In Germany, some of the nurses wondered why I was in such a good mood, why I was laughing so much. I was just plain excited to be alive.
I shared a room with a woman named Susan Joyce, and it turned out she was originally from Minnesota, where Scott was from. She and her husband, Pat, were living in London, England, where he served in the air force.
Susan was in the hospital for surgery to remove cancerous growths in her brain. She’d already had several operations, but the tumors kept reappearing in different places. She was partially deaf from the surgeries and, after the next operation, doctors feared she’d also be blind.
Hearing Susan’s story made me realize I had nothing to complain about. I remember thinking, Boy, and I think I have it bad. At least I’m not losing my hearing.
Besides, I was still overjoyed just to be alive. Early on, I didn’t think much about the long-term effects of my injuries. Mostly, I was just glad to be alive. I had expected each hour on the plane to be my last. Now, here I was in a German hospital, with Scott and doctors all around me. I felt so grateful. My prayers were answered. Who wouldn’t be happy about that?
Scott and I joked around in the hospital. I asked him to take some pictures of my bald head. I wanted to look good for my homecoming, but I was bald and my face looked bruised and raggedy. Scott went out and bought me a wig.
He came back and said, “This looks just like your hair.”
I looked at the wig in his hands and blinked twice. Who were you married to before? was my thought. The wig was this wild hair that hung down almost to my waist! Before the hijacking, my hair was cut short — just barely over my ears.
“Scott, I can’t wear this!” I said. We both broke out laughing. He took the wig back.
I thought everything was going to be okay. Scott and I would go to live in Minnesota. I’d meet some new friends and eventually get a job. Life would move on and we’d be okay.
One day, shortly after I arrived in Germany, a U.S. Army psychiatrist came into my room. He walked over to my bed and sat down. He seemed like a kind man — something in his eyes told me that. “Sometimes,” he said, “people who have been in warlike situations, or gone through rapes, major accidents, criminal assaults, or other traumatic events experience posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD],” he said.
I’d never heard of PTSD before. “What does that mean exactly?” I asked.
“Sometimes, there’s a delayed emotional reaction to the event,” he explained. “You may find yourself crying or feeling bad in a few days, weeks, or months.”
Before the psychiatrist left, he told me to call him if I needed anything or just wanted to talk.
His words didn’t really have much effect on me. I was still so excited to be alive that nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have any hair. It didn’t matter that I’d gone through a hijacking or that I’d had to leave the place I loved. I was alive!
* * *
One day, a speech therapist came into my room to do some tests. The first question she asked was what I did for a living. I couldn’t remember. I knew I was a teacher in Cairo, but what kind? I looked at Scott and said, “Why can’t I remember what I did?”
“Don’t you remember?” he said. “You’re a teacher. You’re an educational diagnostician. And you tested kids.”
When he said it, I thought, Yeah, that’s what I did. I tested kids.
She asked me another question about teaching and testing.
Again, I couldn’t remember the answer. I look at Scott and, again, he said, “Don’t you remember? . . .”
I just kept looking at him and saying, “Why can’t I remember this?”
No one in the hospital had asked me these kinds of questions before.
They had asked for my name and that was about it.
The speech therapist showed me a series of flash cards with different pictures on them. First, she flashed me a black-and-white drawing of a watermelon.
I knew what a watermelon tasted like. I knew it was green on the outside and red on the inside. But I couldn’t remember what it was called.
She showed me another picture, this time of a pyramid.
The same thing happened. I could see myself at the Pyramids. In Cairo, I saw them almost every day. Again, I couldn’t think of the name for pyramid.
* * *
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was still in shock. I hadn’t come to grips with the magnitude of what I’d just been through.
A few days later, things started to change. I started waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares about the hijacking. I kept seeing the little children, the ones that died. I’d hear them cry in my dreams. I’d see them boarding the plane. They were such beautiful children. When children die at an early age, it really hurts me. I couldn’t understand why they had died and I had lived.
As my memories of the hijacking slowly became clearer, I began feeling rage toward the hijackers. For the first time, the full weight of the tragedy was starting to sink in. I realized that my vision was damaged, that my memory was really weak, and that I couldn’t express myself. Scott was getting frustrated with me because I couldn’t do some of the simple things I did before.
It was very uncomfortable for me to let my feelings out. I didn’t want to get angry or cry in front of Scott. Growing up, I’d learned that feelings were private matters best kept to oneself.
Naturally, I didn’t want Scott to think anything was wrong. I wanted to protect him from my pain. He’d ask me how I was feeling and I’d say, “It’s okay, honey. Everything’s going to be okay. We’re going to get through this.”
Boy, who was I kidding! I was holding it all in.
One day, when the pain got bad enough, I decided to call the army psychiatrist. I was afraid Scott would be mad at me for sharing my feelings with a stranger, so I waited for him to leave. This was hard because he rarely left my bedside. I finally saw my chance when Scott left to eat and pick up a few things at the army store. I asked a nurse to get the psychiatrist.
It was over an hour and the psychiatrist still had not showed up. I was getting a little anxious, because I didn’t know when Scott would be coming back. Eventually, the psychiatrist walked into my room. I wanted some privacy, so I told him I wanted to talk in his office.
About a week after my surgery in Malta, I was forced to get up and walk around the halls of the hospital. The doctors thought it would be good therapy for me to get back on my feet. But I tired easily, and when I did, I’d stop and hold on to the walls until I caught my breath.
The psychiatrist and I walked to his office, and when we arrived, he shut the door and directed me to a chair across from him. It didn’t take long for the tears to come.
“I’m feeling really sad and angry about the hijackers and the things they did,” I said. “I’m having a lot of nightmares and waking up in the middle of the night. I see the faces of the children who died.”
“What would you like to do with the hijackers?” he asked.
“I’d like to hit ’em,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. “Hit ’em?”
I said, “Yes, I’d like to hit them.”
“Wouldn’t you like to kill them?” he pressed me.
“Well, I’m not supposed to do that,” I said.
I grew up with the idea that I shouldn’t have thoughts like that — and if I did, I certainly shouldn’t talk about them.
In the midst of our conversation, there was a tapping at the door. The door opened and Scott came walking into the room.
I was startled and afraid he was going to be mad at me for talking to the psychiatrist.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“We’re going to need some more time by ourselves,” the psychiatrist said.
“Oh, sure,” Scott said and backed out the door. “I’ll go wait in your room.”
I continued talking to the psychiatrist for a few more minutes. He said it was okay for me to cry.
When we were done, I walked back to my room. Scott was waiting there.
“Hi, honey,” I greeted him.
I got back into bed and looked over to see how Scott was feeling. I thought he would be mad that I didn’t ask to see the psychiatrist when he was there. I wasn’t honest with Scott about why I waited for him to leave. I didn’t tell him that I didn’t want him to see me cry.
“You weren’t here and I needed someone to talk to,” I said.
“Sometimes, that just happens,” he said. “You have to do what you have to do.”
I felt better. Scott seemed to understand.
Going to the psychiatrist’s office that afternoon was a small step toward naming, accepting, and releasing the pain I’d stuffed down for many years. At that point, however, I had no idea of how much I stuffed and held back — toward the hijackers, Scott, my parents, and others in my life.
* * *
Shortly after Scott and I arrived in Germany, a drove of journalists descended on us. They had been working on the story for U.S. and foreign newspapers, magazines, and television stations and were following up on the human interest angle of my story. They were panting for juicy details of my life and the hijacking.
We turned down all the interview requests. I was still in shock and had no desire to meet the press. I needed to focus on recovering in quiet. I spent most of my time sleeping.
Yet one reporter managed to get past the head of army public relations. He claimed to be with a respected daily newspaper in New York City. The reporter offered to pay Scott two thousand dollars for his version of the hijacking. Scott and I discussed the offer and agreed that Scott would talk to the reporter. We were both concerned about my mounting medical bills; we thought doing the interview would help us meet some of our expenses.
Scott gave the interview, including his chronology of the hijacking and how we had both spent the previous two years in Stavanger, Norway, and Cairo, Egypt.
But the story did not go according to plan. The article appeared in a big, sensationalist tabloid newspaper. And we never saw a dime of the money that was promised.
* * *
I was in Germany for about a week. I spent most of that time sleeping, hobbling around the hallways, and slowly starting to realize what I’d been through.
The first days and weeks after the hijacking were hard on my family and friends back home. They felt helpless to do anything but pray for me in those dark hours of the hijacking. I couldn’t be reached by telephone for about a week after I was shot.
On Friday afternoon, November 29, my parents got two pieces of news: a letter I’d written from Cairo, telling them about my upcoming trip to Greece and Thanksgiving plans (including a picture of me riding on a camel near the Pyramids) and a phone call informing them of my transfer to Germany.
Then, one day, a phone rang at the nurse’s station of the VA hospital. A nurse at the switchboard interrogated the caller asking to speak to me. “Are you a relative?” the nurse said.
“Yeah, this is her sister Barbara,” Barb said.
The nurse came to get me out of bed. I got up, dizzy, and she motioned for me to come over to the phone. “It’s your sister Barbara,” the nurse said.
I don’t have a sister named Barbara, I thought to myself. Who could this be?
I put the receiver to my ear and heard a familiar voice.
It was my friend Barbara Wilson. She told the nurse that she was my sister because the hospital was only allowing me to receive calls from immediate family members. I was glad that Barb had exercised a little ingenuity to get around the bureaucracy.
I met Barb shortly after I started teaching special education in the Baytown School district, a few minutes west of Pasadena, Texas, the Houston suburb where I grew up. Barbara was also a teacher, and the two of us hit it off immediately. We hung out with the same crowd, went to the same parties, took trips together, and got to be like sisters to each other.
It was five o’clock in the morning Texas time when Barb found out what hospital I was in. She still didn’t know how badly I was hurt and wanted to hear my voice. Barb was thrilled when the nurse said I was walking down the hall to get the phone.
“I thought, God! She can walk!” Barb later recalled. “I didn’t think Jackie would be able to get out of bed because of the head injuries. It was so good to know she could get around on her own.”
For the first few minutes on the phone, we both just cried. Then there was a long silence. We didn’t need words to communicate our feelings or how much it meant to hear each other’s voices again.
When we finally started talking, I told Barb about my out-of-body experience. I also talked about my vision problems and how I thought they would clear up when I got a new pair of contact lenses.
It was so good to hear Barb’s voice. She and her husband, Wayne, wanted to fly to Germany to visit and support me. But the doctors said I’d be leaving in a few days anyway, so I didn’t think it was worth the expense. Barb told me that she and Wayne, along with my parents, my friend Debbie Reno, and others had held an around-the-clock vigil for me in the hours and days during and after the hijacking.
Simply talking to Barb gave me a big boost. I didn’t feel quite so alone anymore. At least not for a while.
After about a week in Germany, doctors thought I was ready to go home. Before leaving the hospital, a woman gave me a scarf to put over my bald head. Scott put some makeup on my face. I couldn’t keep from laughing while he put it on. The makeup looked kind of blotchy, but at that point I really didn’t care.
Scott and I flew back to the United States. The government flew me in a huge, old, dark green army transport plane. The plane carried medical equipment and other sick passengers from the VA hospital in Landstuhl. Again, I was lying flat on my back. A kind serviceman came back to visit and check on me, and snuck me some fruit juices.
It felt good to be going back to the states. But the prospect of living in a new place and making new friends was scary.
Our plan was to return to the United States so that I could get the best possible medical care. We still hoped to return to Cairo to teach, yet we didn’t know if or when that would happen.
In Germany, Scott called one of our friends at CAC. Scott asked him to get the key to our apartment and pick up about two hundred dollars in cash that we had saved up. Scott directed the friend to take the money and give it to the caretakers of our building, the Egyptian family living in the elevator shaft.
Excerpted from Miles to Go Before I Sleep by Jackie Nink Pflug, with Peter J. Kisilos, published by Hazelden Publishing, www.hazelden.org. Copyright © 1996 by Hazelden Foundation. Used with permision. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher. To learn more about the author, go to: www.jackiepflug.com.