Shot in the Head and Left to Die, a Hijack Victim Rebuilds Her Life
12/01/1986 at 01:00 AM EST
On Nov. 23, 1985 Egyptair Flight 648, bound from Athens to Cairo, was hijacked and forced to land in Malta. While negotiating their demands, the hijackers-members of a dissident Palestinian faction calling itself Egypt's Revolution—brutally demonstrated their seriousness. They marched five American and Israeli passengers to the front of the plane, shot them each in the head and shoved them down the steps of the boarding ramp. The drama ended after nearly 24 hours when Egyptian commandos stormed the plane; two hijackers and 57 of 92 passengers were killed during the rescue attempt.
The hijacking was one of the bloodiest on record, but there was a trio of miracles. Three of the passengers who had been shot in the head lived: Tamar Artzi, an Israeli woman who was nicked in the ear and Patrick Scott Baker, 29, from White Salmon, Wash., who was only grazed by the hijacker's bullet and has completely recovered. Not so lucky was Jackie Nink Pflug, 31, a special education teacher, who survived her head wound and surgery but is still troubled by seizures, vision problems and traumatic memories. She discussed her ordeal with correspondent Civia Tamarkin.
I am not a hero. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I was lucky survived. I was shot in the head for no other reason than that I am an American, and I'll live with the results the rest of my life.
I didn't give much thought to the possibility of being hijacked when my husband, Scott, and I left to teach in Cairo in August 1985, only two days after we were married. Hijackings, you always think, happen to other people. We loved living in Cairo. I had a position working with learning-disabled children at the Cairo American School, and Scott taught physical education and coached the girls' varsity volleyball team there. I felt alive and happy, and then suddenly, without choice, everything in my life changed.
In November Scott took his team to play a tournament in Athens. I went along for the fun of a two-day holiday and the chance to shop for all the things I couldn't find in Cairo. Because I had to get back to teach earlier than Scott did, I booked a reservation on a late Saturday evening flight. When I walked into the airport that night I felt strange, eerie. Security was lax. They were hand checking everything, but not very thoroughly. The guard only shook one or two of the bags stuffed with groceries inside my duffel and then waved me on. I remember thinking that I could have a gun in there and no one would know.
On the plane I had an aisle seat in the third row. As people got settled I turned around to see who was on the plane. I noticed the man sitting catty-corner behind me. He was good looking, with short hair and pretty eyes. I guessed he was Egyptian or Palestinian. But he was nervous and fidgeting, and I wondered what his problem was.
About 15 minutes after we took off, I was listening on my Walkman to Born in the U.S.A. when I heard a commotion. There was the nervous man standing in the aisle behind me. He had two grenades in his left hand and a gun in his right. He was yelling in English to people, telling them to sit down and shut up. I thought it had to be a bad dream. He was trying to pull the pins out of the grenades with his teeth.
"I've got to get out of here, I've got to get out of here," I kept thinking, but there was no way out. I put my head in my hands, but as soon as I lifted my face I felt a gun poking me in the back of my head. The hijacker said, "Are you scared, lady?" I said, "No, I'm fine," and I thought, "Jackie, how could you say that?"
The stewardess got on the speaker and said we were being hijacked by members of a group called Egypt's Revolution. All of us in the front of the plane were told to go to the back and fill up empty seats. I ended up in the last row, next to a hijacker. Meanwhile another one in the front—I think there were four altogether—was collecting passports.
Suddenly there were shots. One of the Egyptian sky marshals on board pulled out a gun and shot one of the hijackers. Then the hijacker next to me shot the marshal. Up in the air the shooting sounded like firecrackers.
Everyone was in shock. Just as it was my turn to hand in my passport, the plane made a very rough landing at Malta. On the way up the aisle to get my passport, which I had left in my original seat, I stepped over a body. I couldn't believe I was doing that. I was ushered to the middle of the plane and put in a seat next to Scarlett Rogenkamp, who was a 38-year-old American woman from Oceanside, Calif.
Then the hijackers asked if there were any Israelis on board. One woman stood up and walked to the front of the plane. We heard gunshots. Then the hijackers identified another Israeli woman from her passport. We heard another shot and a thump, thump, thump and then a thud. It was a body hitting the stairs and then the tarmac.
I knew Scarlett and I were next because we were Americans. Sure enough they came for us and took us to the front row with another American, Patrick Scott Baker. They tied our hands behind our backs with neckties and sat us down. Five or 10 minutes later they came for Patrick Baker. They shot him, and we heard the same thumping sound. Scarlett was next. They shot her in the head and threw her off. She died immediately.
Then they came to get me. I walked up to the door without crying or doing anything. They opened the door and I could see bright light. There was a loud and heavy feeling in my head, and I heard something tumbling. But I didn't feel myself hitting anything. It was more like floating. I thought I had better play dead 'cause I didn't know where the hijackers were. I didn't feel any pain. It started to rain, and I could feel the cold rain seeping into my head. Later I was told that the bullet was lodged in the back of my skull like a cork. The bullet was fired point-blank, but miraculously it didn't go all the way in.
I was left lying on the tarmac for over five hours. I drifted in and out of sleep. I thought, "If I live, I probably won't be normal." The rain stopped, I saw a really pretty blue sky and puffy white clouds, and I thought, "What a pretty day to have such terrible things happening."
I heard a vehicle approaching. People got out, and I could only see pants legs. I didn't know whether it was the hijackers, so I closed my eyes and continued to play dead. A voice on the megaphone said, "Okay, you can pick her up now." They dragged me across the tarmac and threw me face-down on a metal bed. They put me inside some vehicle, and we began moving when one of the medics turned me over. I was startled so I gasped. They screamed, "She's alive!" And they raced to the hospital. They had been on their way to the morgue.
At St. Luke's Hospital in Valletta, Malta, doctors took the bullet out of my skull. Bone had been shattered, and I now have a dent in my head. In the process of picking out the fragments, they removed some tissue and damaged the part of the brain that controls the left peripheral vision in both eyes.
Recuperating at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, West Germany, I began to realize something was wrong. When I got out of bed, I thought my feet were touching the floor, but they weren't. When I reached for the wall, it wasn't there. Both my depth perception and my balance were very bad. I also had a muffled ringing in my ears because of a concussion to the middle ear. The doctors left me with no hope about my depth perception returning. Still, I felt like I was a walking miracle. If the bullet had moved a half inch either way, I could have been paralyzed. The doctors did warn me that there was always a chance I might have seizures. I also saw a psychiatrist who explained I might have post-traumatic stress syndrome, similar to war veterans. I was happy to be alive, but at the same time I felt angry and bitter. Why did this have to happen to me?
When we returned to the U.S. we went to live with Scott's parents near Minneapolis. The worst problem was my vision. I'd look at something and it wasn't whole. If I looked at a person, the eyes would be in one place and the nose in another. One day my mother-in-law took me shopping for some things to wear because everything I had was left behind in Egypt or lost on the jet. I tried on a pair of pants, but I couldn't tell what they looked like. I came home and started crying.
A month later we moved into our own apartment. I was starting to get some of my health back. But my analytical and critical thinking skills had left me. I didn't know what anything meant. I'd look at a watch, and it would say 8 o'clock, and I didn't know what 8 o'clock meant. It is still very difficult for me to read and decode words because letters are on top of letters and pieces of letters are missing, and I only see halves of words. With my visual problems, if I make a letter bigger there are even more pieces. But if I shrink it, I can see it better. I suddenly realized what I had been dealing with for so many years as a special education teacher. Now the tables were turned, and I was a learning-disabled student.
There was a lot of self-pity, too. I had torn ligaments in my neck from the fall onto the tarmac. I had severe headaches and I developed seizures. To add to it all, the medication for controlling the seizures made me depressed. I had significant mood swings from very high to very low. I had grown up with this attitude that it's not okay to cry. Yet I could feel all this emotion bottled up and bubbling inside me. Finally last spring I went to a therapist. Talking to her I was able to let it all out and break down and cry. It felt good.
On top of everything else, we also have a problem paying medical bills. President Reagan told me I shouldn't have to pay these expenses, and he assigned an aide to help us straighten things out. But somehow because of the bureaucracy, we are still stuck with many of these costs.
Now it's a year after the hijacking, and my vision and hearing are still impaired. I still have memory loss and suffer from seizures. But right now the way I measure my success is by not getting upset if I fail at something. I try to tackle it again without quitting. The anger and bitterness are gone. I am determined to make it back to the way I was before. But then I wonder—what's going to happen up the road? What am I going to be like three months from now?