NEW YORK — A pistol-wielding, masked Ethiopian hijacked a Lufthansa Airbus with 104 people aboard Thursday, threatening the pilot, crew and passengers during an 11-hour drama that ended peacefully at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
No one was injured in the incident, the first transatlantic hijacking in more than 16 years.
Officials said late in a confusing day that the hijacker, identified as Nebiu Demeke, 20, had personal reasons for wanting to come to the United States.
They did not specify the reasons, although there was wildly varying speculation throughout the day about his identity and motives.
At one point, officials said he was a disgruntled Bosnian demanding an audience at the United Nations. He then was said to be an American or an Arab youth wanting to protest the Balkan conflict.
Late Thursday, he was reportedly an Arab with a Norwegian passport and an unclear motive. Moments after his capture, he was described as a docile, asylum-seeking Somali.
Crew members and passengers said they found the hijacker to be extremely scary and unstable. There were strong fears he would fire his gun while the plane was in the air--with disastrous results.
But at the flight's end, the hijacker made a curious exchange with the pilot, giving up his gun for a pair of sunglasses. He also left his hat and a thank-you note behind in the cockpit of Flight 592 for the pilot, Capt. Gerhard Goebel.
The hijacker was quickly surrounded by police and arrested after exiting the plane with his hands behind his head just 14 minutes after landing.
Passengers and the crew said some of the most terrifying moments of the ordeal occurred when American authorities, with gear as if they were "ready for war," as one individual said, stormed the plane to secure it after the hijacker had been taken off.
The incident, German authorities said, began in Frankfurt on Wednesday when the hijacker bought a ticket for Thursday morning's Lufthansa Flight 592 to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, via Cairo.
In Bonn, Interior Minister Rudolf Seiters confirmed that the hijacker's handgun was real and ordered an immediate investigation to determine how the weapon was smuggled past numerous security checks at Frankfurt airport, one of the busiest airports in the world and the largest on the Continent.
Ironically, the hijacking unfolded at the same time a group of German pilots was meeting with Bonn government officials to complain about lax security and express concerns that cleaning crews could plant weapons aboard planes at Frankfurt.
The drama began 30 to 40 minutes after the plane took off from Frankfurt en route to Cairo and Addis Ababa.
Just after crossing into Austrian airspace, at 11:20 a.m. local time, the hijacker drew his gun and forced his way into the cockpit, demanding that the plane change course and head north, German authorities said.
"He pointed a gun at my head," pilot Goebel said. He said the hijacker told him, " 'If you do not turn . . . I will shoot you.' He was extremely nervous, very high-strung. We managed to convey to him we were his allies."
Initially, the pilot recalled, "I felt, 'Oh, no, it can't be true.' I thought it was a hoax. But that was only for a minute."
Goebel, 52, flew to Hanover, where he informed the tower that a hijacker with a pistol to the pilot's head wanted the plane refueled immediately and cleared for takeoff to New York. If the demands were not met, the pilot relayed, the gunman would "shoot the passengers one after the other."
The conversation between cockpit and tower was taped by an amateur radio enthusiast. The pilot could be heard calmly urging that the threats be taken seriously and caution exercised.
As the 160-seat twin-engine Airbus 310-300 touched down at Kennedy Airport about 4 p.m. EST, an army of police and federal agents waited along with a bomb disposal squad. The plane taxied to a remote area of the airport where a yellow trailer serving as command central was set up.
Two anti-terrorist task forces and police in flak jackets cautiously approached the Airbus 310 and crouched behind the front wheels. Portable staircases were then rolled up to the front and back exits and SWAT teams entered the aircraft, apparently to ensure there were no accomplices or explosives aboard.
Passengers were taken off the plane after the gunman surrendered.
In Germany, Lufthansa said it had no immediate information about the passengers' nationalities. In New York, the airline could not offer detailed information but said most of the passengers were Egyptians.
The hijacker may not have realized that Germany, in fact, has one of the world's most liberal asylum laws, and had he simply requested asylum there, he would have been guaranteed food, shelter and welfare benefits while his application was considered--a process that often takes years.