British man who survived 1986 Pam Am hijacking when terrorists slaughtered 21 finally confronts man who held him at gunpoint – and is stunned to learn 36 years later why he spared his life
- Mike Thexton was returning home from a hiking trip when the plane was taken
- A Palestinian terror cell held almost 400 people for 16 hours at gunpoint
- Mike finally spoke to the group’s leader this year and found out why he is alive
A British man who was on board the Pan Am 73 plane when armed terrorists stormed it during an assault in 1986 that killed 21 people has confronted the man who held him at gunpoint.
Mike Thexton, then 27, was returning from Karachi in Pakistan after spending the summer hiking the Himalayas when a Palestinian terror cell hijacked the airliner.
The jet never left the runaway and for 16 terrifying hours, Mike and 400 others were held captive by the four men, who were armed with rifles and hand grenades.
The terror group’s boss Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini had planned to fly the plane into an Israeli military target, which would likely have seen all on board killed, but the pilots escaped through a hatch before they could break into the cockpit.
Mike begged for his life to be spared during the attack, and always wondered why he had survived. He was stunned to discover the reason one of the terrorists opted to spare him after more than three decades of questions.
Mike Thexton, who was 27 at the time of his ordeal, was called to the front of the plane and begged the terrorists not to kill him
Terrorist Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini of the feared Abu Nidal terror group spoke to Mike last summer to reveal why he didn’t kill him
After boarding the ill-fated flight, the Brit first realised something was wrong when he shouting on board. He then saw a man struggling with a flight attendant as he held a gun to her head.
Mike’s name was one of the first to be called by the terrorists, who were targeting western tourists, and they held him at the front of the plane before going on to slaughter 21 people and injure more than 100 others.
The terrorists’ first killed a passenger after failed attempts to negotiate for a pilot to return to the aircraft.
But despite being ‘convinced’ he was going to die, Mike – now 63 – managed to survive the encounter with just a ‘scratch’ to his elbow.
After being held at the front for hours he fell asleep – before being awoken by one of the terrorists and instructed to return to the rest of the group.
Almost 37 years on from the nightmare which saw 360 passengers held, he has relived his ordeal in a Sky News documentary, set to air tonight.
Mike had visited the Himalayas to honour his brother, Peter, 30, who died three years earlier while climbing Broad Peak, the 12th-highest mountain in the world.
He says in the new Sky feature documentary, Hijacked: Flight 73, that he begged his captor not to kill him: ‘Please, please don’t hurt me. My brother has died in the mountains, my parents have no one else’.
Mike said: ‘He just waved his hand as if to say, I haven’t got time for that.’
Speaking to MailOnline, Mike revealed how the death of his brother had touched the heart of Safarini – who is currently serving a 160-year prison sentence in the US.
Mike spoke to the terrorist in a phone call last summer, and demanded to know why his life had been spared all those years ago.
Safarini’s reply took his breath away: ‘You mentioned to me that your brother is killed,’ he said in broken English. ‘I say, “OK man, just sit aside”. It touched my heart, actually.’
‘I was astonished that he told me that he put me back with the others at the end because of what I had said about my brother dying,’ he told MailOnline.
Injured victims are evacuated to a US military hospital in Germany after the 16-hour siege
The jet never left the runaway and for 16 terrifying hours, Mike and 400 others were held captive by the four men, who were armed with rifles and hand grenades
The Pan Am Flight 73 plane pictured after the siege was over – terrorists killed 21 and injured 100 more
Passengers were held at gunpoint during a 16-hour ordeal, which left Mike always wondering why his life had been spared
Mike’s older brother Peter had been killed while climbing Broad Peak, the 12th-highest mountain in the world
Mike pictured during his summer of hiking before the hijacking took place
‘When I said that, 12 hours earlier, I didn’t think he was even listening.
‘And yet he remembered it 12 hours later at the end of the hijack, and 36 years later when we spoke.
‘I had thought of a number of possible reasons for him giving me that chance, but this one had never entered my head.
‘And he said that they opened fire because they panicked, which is the first time I have heard him admit it. Both of those answers were important to me.’
During his ordeal, Mike had attempted to connect with his attackers in another way – by feigning to be a Muslim and praying.
After 10 hours, the plane’s power unit shut down and it went dark. Then all hell broke loose, with the terrorists opening fire and murdering passengers.
‘The plane went into darkness after the power unit failed. Then – bang! I remember it started with the explosion of a hand grenade,’ he told MailOnline.
‘Then – automatic gunfire from a few rows in front of me, impossibly loud. Then – automatic gunfire from the back of the plan, surprisingly distant and quiet.
‘The men at the front changed their magazines and fired again, and then again at the back. And then – it cannot have been quiet, but it had been so loud that I only remember silence. I saw the shape of a door – the night sky a different shade of black – and realised that the time had come to leave.’
Sunshine Vesuwala was a flight attendant who also survived the hijacking.
Now 58, a business owner in Ontario, Canada, and a mother of two, she had completed her training just months earlier.
Sunshine Vesuwala had completed her flight attendant training a matter of months before the hijacking took place
Sunshine was hailed as a hero after the attack and was credited with saving lives after refusing to hand over westerners’ passports
Bullet holes in the plane’s windshield showed the violence of the attack
Within moments of the hijacking beginning, a gun was pointed to her head then her back as the terrorists wearing military uniforms attempted to storm the cockpit.
Later, she was ordered by Safarini to walk the aisles gathering passports. She tells Sky: ‘I had to try and not give him what he wanted. If they were white Americans, I dropped their passports [back] into their laps. I hid passports under the seat as he demanded [I] filter through them.’
‘It was a gamble and could easily have turned the other way had I been caught,’ she added in an interview with MailOnline.
Recounting the moment the terrorists started murdering people, she continued: ‘My first thought was we were all going to die. Once the shooting stopped and I was still in one piece I noticed the door closer to me was open and people were running towards the exit.
‘I watched and waited until I was able to head in the same direction and stepped out on the wing.
‘People were jumping off the wing and others who could not were left behind. There were too many people to control and direct so I let them jump off if they wanted to.
‘They were in a real panic and there was no stopping them. Some of the passengers noticed me there and grabbed me asking for help.’
Sunshine was hailed for her courage and said her decision not to hand over the passports of Western tourists had helped to save lives.
She also remained on the plane to help passengers and injured colleagues escape to safety.
Insisting she is not a hero, she told MailOnline: ‘My uniform meant I was responsible for my passengers, I could not just dump them and cut and run. They were helpless, some badly injured and very traumatised. My conscience would not let me leave.’
The gunmen and their accomplices were sentenced to death in Pakistan and later given life imprisonment.
Safarini had then been released from prison in Pakistan, but two weeks after 9/11 he was captured by the FBI and taken to the US where he pleaded guilty to 95 counts, including murder.
Hijacked: Flight 73 will air at 9.20pm on Saturday April 29 on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW
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