34 Years Ago – on Monday 7th October 1985 the Italian passenger liner ACHILLE LAURO was hijacked by four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front off the coast of Egypt, while on passage from Alexandria to Ashdod, Israel. A 69 year old Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered by the hijackers and thrown overboard.
The hijacking of the ACHILLE LAURO was planned and executed by one of the three factions of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF).The PLF as a whole was one of the eight constituent groups that had originally formed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) which was under the chairmanship of Yasser Arafat.
The hijackers of the ACHILLE LAURO in their demands to be met before they freed their hostages specified only one by name Samir Kuntar. The Lebanese Kuntar was a friend of Abu Abbas, the mastermind behind the hijacking. Kuntar and an accomplice had been jailed by Israel five years before for attempting on April 22nd 1979 to kidnap a Jewish family in Nahariya, Northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border. The botched kidnapping (which had been planned by Abbas and Kuntar) had resulted in the death of an Israeli policeman Eliyahu Shahar, 31 yo father Danny Kaiser and his two daughters 4 yo Einat, and 2 yo Yael ,leaving only wife and mother Smadar Haran Kaiser alive.
In 1965, the liner was sold to the Flotta Lauro Line, or Star Lauro, (now MSC Cruises) and renamed ACHILLE LAURO after the company’s owner. She was extensively rebuilt and modernised after an August 1965 on board explosion, and entered service in 1966 carrying passengers to Sydney, Australia. The ship played a role in evacuating the families of British servicemen caught up in unrest in Aden, and made one of the last northbound transits through the Suez Canal before its closure during the Six Day War. She was converted to a cruise ship in early 1972, during which time she suffered a disastrous fire. A 1975 collision with the cargo ship YOUSEFF resulted in the sinking of the latter, and another on board fire in 1981 took her out of service for a time. She was laid up in Tenerife when Lauro Lines went bankrupt in 1982. The Chandris Line took possession of her under a charter arrangement in 1985, shortly before the hijacking.
The ACHILLE LAURO embarked from Genoa, Italy on Thursday, October 3rd 1985 with an itinerary for an 11 day cruise with ports of call in Naples, Syracuse, Alexandria and Port Said in Egypt; Ashdod; Limassol in Cyprus; Rhodes and Piraeus in Greece; and returning to Italy for a stop at Capri before finishing back in Genoa.The fares for a double-berthed cabin were between $955 and $1,550.The ship had become the property of the Italian government when its previous owner, Costa Lines, went bankrupt. The vessel was seized by the company’s creditors, who in 1983 sold it to the state, who in turn leased it to Chandris cruise line under an agreement that would last until 1987.
The ship set out with 748 passengers. Among them was a group of close friends from New York and New Jersey who forewent their usual Jersey shore vacation in favor of a cruise. The trip celebrated the 58th birthday of Marilyn Klinghoffer, a personnel manager at a small publishing firm, who had fought colon cancer into remission, as well as her 36th wedding anniversary with Leon, who owned and operated a small appliance manufacturing firm. The pair had two adult daughters, 34 yo Lisa, who was married, and 28 yo Ilsa, who was engaged. Paralysed on his right side as a result of two strokes, Leon could occasionally walk with a cane, but usually relied on a wheelchair. In fact, the group had specifically chosen the ACHILLE LAURO over other ships due to its wheelchair accessibility. Travelling with the Klinghoffers were their friends Frank and Mildred Hodes, Neil and June Kantor, Seymour and Viola Meskin, Sylvia Sherman, and Charlotte Spiegel.
On Monday, October 7th four PLF militants hijacked the liner off Egypt. The hijackers had been surprised by a crew member and acted prematurely. The Palestinians had hidden their weapons in the gas tank of a car parked in Italy in preparation for boarding the ship. Their smuggled weapons still with gasoline residue on them, gave off a smell that the crew had noticed but had not acted on. A cabin steward, with the hijackers’ stateroom in his responsibilities, surprised the four Palestinians (as they were trying to use a hairdryer to clean the residue off their weapons) by entering the unlocked door to their room in order to deliver complimentary fruit. The hijackers plan to launch an attack on Ashdod, Israel was put aside as the terrorists panicked and moved to hijack the ship instead.
Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartous, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. After being refused permission to dock at Tartous, the hijackers killed disabled Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and then threw his body overboard. The ship then headed back towards Port Said, and after two days of negotiations, the hijackers agreed to abandon the liner in exchange for safe conduct and were flown towards Tunisia aboard an Egyptian commercial airliner. This plane, however, was intercepted by US fighter aircraft and directed to land in Sicily, where the hijackers were to be tried for murder, but could not be extradited. The hijackers were later given passage to Yugoslavia after being paroled by the Italians and escaped.
On October 15th, the Reagan Administration told reporters that a partially decomposed body that had washed up on the Syrian coast with a bullet hole in the skull fired from above was that of Leon Klinghoffer. At the time the four hijackers, Yasir Arafat, and Farouk Kaddoumi all continued to claim that no one had been murdered during the hijacking.
When she was part of Flotta Lauro and used to call at Malta, vessels were handled by Sullivan Maritime Ltd – www.sullivanmaritime.com
Photos by Capt. Lawrence Dalli. Do not use these images without my permission. © All rights reserved. Malta Ship Photos & Action Photos – www.maltashipphotos.com
Published – Monday 7th October 2019