A young, Spanish-speaking assailant – who said he had been racially mistreated in this country – demanded $6M and a plane to take him to Cuba – before throwing his gun out the window and stepping out into the darkness of the sprawling airport’s northern reaches.
In the final hours of the 10-hour drama, in which two hostages were killed, the bus careened wildly around the airport’s runways and taxiways as a caravan of police vehicles pursued with bobbing headlights.
At one point the bus drew up to a DC-8 cargo plane that had been readied at the gunman’s insistence, but last minute negotiations failed, and the chase resumed. It ended at 11:30pm when an armored personnel carrier rammed and halted the bus. One policeman said the assailant ran out of ammunition for his 32-caliber pistol, but Luis Robinson told police that the only reason he gave up is that he made friends with the rest of the people on the bus.
The bus had left for Vermont from Port Authority bus terminal at 40th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan at about 1:30pm. The gunman took it over in the Bronx, ordered the bus driver to go to Kennedy, crash it through a fence at the airport, and drive in circles over runways on the southern end of the field, near Jamaica Bay.
There was no initial panic, a hostage said. “Everything was perfectly still.” The gunman strode to the front after shooting a hostage and made a “little speech” in which he warned that people would be killed if they did not follow his orders.
He divided the other passengers according to race, the whites to one side and the blacks to the other. He spoke English and Spanish and shouted about how he had been mistreated in the United States.
All air traffic at Kennedy, one of the busiest airports in the world, was halted for an hour in the afternoon during the driving spree and then again for three hours late last night as the bus meandered around the airport before the surrender. During the afternoon, pursuing police officers had to back off as the hijacker fired wildly from the windows and shouted death threats against the passengers. At one point the body of a woman slain by the gunman was hurled from the moving vehicle. During a 6 hour period in the afternoon and evening the bus remained parked near a TWA hanger and the gunman released 12 passengers including the driver, who died at a hospital later of a gunshot wound to the chest, and two men who had been wounded by gunshots, one of them critically.
In response to his demand for money and an airplane capable of taking him at least 3,000 miles over water, some money was sent to the airport and a DC-8 was fitted with extra seats and otherwise prepared for a flight.
The hijacker’s motives were unclear but one released hostage, John McGavern, told reporters: “He was racially upset, very upset about the racial situation in the United States and wanted to leave.” Mr. McGavern said the bus reached the North Bronx when the gunman “jumped up in the aisle, pointed a gun and shot me – I think he was aiming for my face.” The bullet zipped through his neck cleanly. “He just went boom. I was looking right down the barrel. It hurt like the devil.” “If you live till we get to Kennedy you can go,” Mr. McGavern said the gunman had told him. The gunman pushed him forward with his hand on his Mr. McGavern’s neck and ordered him to lie down in the front seat. When they reached the airport he was dumped out of the moving bus and was able to get up and walk despite his wound. The bullet passed through his neck and no surgery was required. “It’s really a miracle that there was no major damage,” said the doctor later.
“We thought he (the driver) was lost or he was a nut,” said Lt. John Stone about the police reaction to initial reports that the bus had crashed through a metal gate next to the police headquarters building.
During the initial driving spree on the runway the body of a slain woman was thrown from the bus and recovered by policemen. The woman was said to have been shot in the back of the head. “I put the lady at the stairs of the bus and told everyone to start yelling to the police to back off. And the bus driver decided he was going to be a hero, so I had to shoot the lady and turn around and deal with him immediately.”
Three passengers’ accounts contradicted the hijacker’s story. All three charged that Luis Robinson had shot Nettie Blassberg, 57 years old, and that when the driver then lunged at him, he was shot. Mr. Robinson’s version was that he shot both in self-defense after the driver tried to push him out of the bus, where police marksmen were lined up.
Mr. Blassberg said of his wife and the hijacker: “He made her stand in the doorway, right in front of me. She was looking at me, I was looking at her, and he just shot. At first I thought he shot past her and shoved her off the bus, and I thought, “That’s good, she’s off the bus.” The bus driver, Mr. Blassberg said, was “the real hero.”
“He told us the woman he shot was a sacrifice and meant to show the police he meant business. He thought the police thought he was kidding and he wanted to show them he wasn’t.”
There was a brief violent and confusing fight onboard. Nettie Blassberg, 57, was shot and her body tumbled out the door. Inside a 22-year old female army specialist tired to fell the gunman with a karate chop. She said Mr. Robinson struck her in the forehead with the gun. Mr. Bozick, the driver tried to lung toward the gunman to. He was shot, and he too toppled out of the door.
With Mrs. Blassberg was her husband David, who operates a newsstand and lunch counter in the courthouse in Greenfield. The gunman ordered him to operate the bus. “I can’t drive. I’m legally blind.”
The tense drama unfolded on a hot, sultry holiday weekend afternoon.
Excerpt from Robert McFadden July 5, 1977 New York Times