Editor’s Note: Anne Sweeney is president of Anne Sweeney Public Relations, based in South Brunswick. In a parallel to the ongoing evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, below, Sweeney shares the story of her own involvement in similar efforts as an employee of Pan Am Airlines during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.
This story recalls one of many evacuation flights operated by Pan American World Airways, rescuing Americans and others caught in the midst of war and revolution in hot spots around the world — Beirut, Islamabad, Havana, and Saigon among them. Many of us remember the chaos and shame of the Fall of Saigon which now is repeating itself right down to mangled bodies in landing gears, children being thrown over fences in the futile hope of rescue, and desperate people fighting to get out as an army advanced. Pan Am’s Allan Topping was able to get most of his Vietnamese staff out of the country aboard a Pan Am 747 operated by volunteer pilots and flight attendants. Thanks to President Gerald Ford, several airlines, including Pan Am, were commandeered to fly hundreds of mixed-race orphans, the children of Vietnamese women and American Servicemen. These children were adopted by families in the US and Canada.
Our iconic airline is gone but America seems incapable of learning from past mistakes. Now, a new generation of airline crews from various countries are coming to the rescue of those American and Afghans still in Kabul. But what will become of this benighted country and the people left behind once those planes have flown?
In 1979, when I worked in the Public Relations Department at Pan American Airways, Iranian militants overthrew the Shah and took the staff of the American Embassy hostage. These people were abused and held for more than a year. President Jimmy Carter launched one effort to rescue the hostages. It failed miserably.
To show solidarity with the Iranians against the Great Satan, a mob of thousands overran the American Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, attacking American civilians, including women and children. The embassy was forced to evacuate most personnel and all families. A number of people were killed and the embassy totally destroyed. Pakistani police and troops were very slow to arrive and one young Marine was killed trying to defend the embassy.
As it had done during similar uprisings around the world, Pan Am sent an aircraft and crew to evacuate these Americans. Pilots and cabin crew volunteered to take a 747 into Islamabad and fly out about 300 people.
I was duty officer that weekend. This meant that I was the link between the company and the media and had to be available on a 24-hour basis in case of accidents, incidents and everything in between. On my watch, I handled a number of situations — a bomb in a locker at the JFK Worldport, the resignation of the company president and Sean Connery’s lost luggage.
This was different. On a Saturday morning, I sat in my apartment on the phone to Pan Ops. This was the nerve center of the airline, hidden somewhere in the depths of JFK. All Pan Am aircraft were tracked from here. My job was to follow the progress of the evacuation flight and once it took off and cleared Pakistani airspace, send a statement to the media. Communications were fairly complex — the phone lines went from me to JFK to London and then by radio to Pan Am in Istanbul and finally to Karachi. Remember, this was 1979.
The information came in spurts.
The aircraft is approaching…he’s touching down… Pakistani troops are surrounding the aircraft…. the stairs are pulling up to the door…the door is open… …they are letting the passenger’s board…. boarding complete…. doors closed…he’s taxiing…. he’s up! And later, those very welcome words — the plane had cleared Pakistani airspace.
I had many moments in my Pan Am career but I was proudest of that one — for being a part of something that was important and something that Pan Am people did many, many times over the years and at far more risk than I incurred. I interviewed the crew for the company newspaper — they had all volunteered to fly into Islamabad and took the passengers as far as Frankfurt where they were met by US Army medical teams. There were even veterinarians there to take care of the pets evacuated with their owners. “I was proud of the crew and proud of Pan Am,” the captain said. The purser quoted a passenger who told him how frightened the Americans had been. “But when we saw that Pan Am plane coming for us, it was a symbol of freedom.”
Forty-two years later, little has changed. Americans, civilian and military, are more than ever in danger from attacks by Islamic fanatics. This didn’t begin on September 11. It goes back to the Palestinians who hijacked and bombed Pam Am, TWA and other western carriers in the 70s and 80s. It goes back to Pan Am 103 where 262 innocent civilians were blown out of the sky. To terrorists who attacked a Pan Am plane on the ground and slaughtered several people including Neerja Bhanot, the purser who tried to shield three children. It goes back to the beginning of our 20-year war in Afghanistan. And it goes back to Islamabad in 1979.
No American president, from Richard Nixon onward, responded adequately to these vicious attacks. Strong military action might have helped stem the growth of Islamic fascism. It might have made have made Desert Storm and the subsequent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria, unnecessary. It might even have changed the course of history so that September 11 would be just another day on the calendar.
But I look back on that day in 1979, so that I can feel an emotion that has become very rare in this not-so-brave New World. Pride.
Anne Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.