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A member of the cabin crew on Tianjin Airlines' Flight GS7554 explains the emergency procedures on July 3. The flight travels daily between Hotan and Urumqi. Photos by Zhao Dan / for China Daily
Passengers wait to check in and board their flights at Hotan Airport on July 3.
Passengers and crew describe the sequence of events in the skies above Northwest China last week. Cui Jia reports from Hotan and Shao Wei from Urumqi.
Tianjin Airlines' daily flight from Hotan to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in Northwest China, took off half an hour late on Tuesday, arriving safely at its destination 90 minutes later. The passengers experienced some turbulence during the journey, but the discomfort was minor compared with events on the same flight last week.
On that day, the cabin crew and passengers on Flight GS7554 foiled an attempted hijacking, which left at least 10 people injured. The six would-be hijackers tried to take control of the narrow-bodied Embraer ERJ-190 jet shortly after take off. The attempt failed after passengers and crew realized what was happening and began to fight back. Two police officers on the flight were injured and two cabin crew and six passengers suffered minor cuts and bruises as they fought with the men.
The plane returned to Hotan Airport immediately after the incident and the local authorities have confirmed that the six suspects - all male and members of the Uygur ethnic group - are being held in police custody and the case is under investigation.
Sequence of events
The sequence of events was as follows: Just 10 minutes after the plane took off, three men attempted to break into the cockpit using metal bars they'd smuggled onto the aircraft hidden inside crutches, according to an air hostess who declined to be named. She was the first to offer any resistance and suffered injuries in the attack.
At the same time, three men at the back of the plane stood up and began waving metal bars and what some observers claim were explosive materials. They ordered the passengers to remain seated and not to move.
After a failed attempt to gain entry to the cockpit, one of the men tried to use a lighter to ignite the contents of a bottle he was holding, said Liu Huijun, deputy director of Xinjiang Grain Bureau who was sitting in the front row of the plane. "I saw that the man was going to light the contents of the bottle, which was as big as a chewing gum container. So I stood up quickly and knocked the bottle away," said Liu, who suffered head injuries as he fought with the men.
Another passenger, Dou Ganggui, who was traveling in the first-class compartment, came to Liu's aid, fracturing bones in his hand during the fracas. "I can't recall the color or material in the bottle. It happened all of a sudden and the situation was totally chaotic, as you can imagine," said Liu.
"I don't think what I did was brave. It's something anyone would do in those circumstances. How could one sit and watch people trying to take the plane down, which would probably end up killing everyone in the process?" he said.
Bruises were plainly visible on the face of Fu Huacheng, deputy director of the education bureau of Lop county, Hotan prefecture, as he recalled the "horrifying experience on board".
The 44-year-old said he has a sixth sense about violence as he has lived in Hotan, the scene of many disturbances, since childhood. "Their eyes were fierce, so were their blows on my head with the metal bars. But it was a fight for life. If we'd been too frightened to fight back, we would have all died," said Fu.
"I heard the men yell 'Whoever stands up will die', and realized that it was a hijack attempt. So I stood up and ran toward them. They were around four or five rows away from me and the people in those rows were sitting in total silence. That worried me and so I shouted in the Uygur language, 'Come on! Let's stand up and fight them. Otherwise, we will all die!' Then two men rushed at the hijackers, and the three of us fought them," Fu recalled.
Another passenger, police officer Turhong Ruzniaz from Hotan's Lop county, said that it was his duty to tackle the alleged hijackers. "About 10 minutes after the plane took off, I saw a tall man with long hair and black shirt stand up and hit a passenger with a metal stick while another man ran toward the cockpit with a bottle in his hand," he said. The 34-year-old kicked the man from behind and pinned him to the floor until the plane landed back at Hotan.
When he spoke on Monday, his right hand was still wrapped in bandages. "It's nothing. It didn't hurt the bone," he smiled.
Staff still traumatized
"I just did what a police officer is supposed to do," said Lu Maopeng, a police officer from Hotan public security bureau, who was traveling to a meeting in Urumqi when the incident occurred. "How could they believe they could succeed?" he asked.
So far, members of the cabin crew have not officially been made available for interview. "They are still a little traumatized by the incident and I hope people will understand," said an airline representative, who declined to be named. He confirmed that the flight attendants will be removed from active duty for a time.
Security has been tightened at Hotan Airport in the aftermath of the incident. Only people on the daily passenger list are allowed into the terminal and all luggage is checked twice. Shoes and belts must also be submitted for inspection.
On Tuesday, GS7554 was almost full, as usual. Yang Yong, a passenger who booked his flight on Saturday, said there was nothing to be afraid of. "I would have fought if I had been on the plane, but it's just an isolated event," said the 36-year-old businessman. "However, like many other people, my question is: How were they able to carry metal poles onto the plane when security is so tight?"
"Hijacking an airplane is a serious and violent terrorist attack. The entire world should condemn the crime of hijacking civilian aircraft," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a news briefing on Monday.
Zhang Chunxian, Party chief of Xinjiang, also emphasized the gravity of the situation. "The hijackers intended to cause explosions at both the front and rear of the plane. If they had succeeded, the plane would have exploded, killing everyone onboard no matter which ethnic group they might be from."
The Xinjiang government has commended 10 people, including crew members and police officers, for their bravery and efforts to subdue the men. Each received 100,000 yuan ($16,000), while the flight crew was awarded 500,000 yuan.
"The success in foiling this attempted hijacking means that maintaining the stability and prosperity of Xinjiang has become a common goal for people from all ethnic groups. Our constant efforts to maintain stability in Xinjiang have resulted in this success," said Zhang at the ceremony.
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(China Daily 07/04/2012 page6)