DRAMA IN REAL LIFE “WE’RE KIDNAPPED!”
On the airport tarmac in Jamaica, an armed man takes a plane’s crew hostage. It’s up to a pair of young flight attendants to save them all.
SANGSTER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT in Montego Bay, Jamaica was quiet. The flow of vacationers that pass through the busy portal to the country’s north coast had slowed to a trickle as passengers boarded the final flight.
CanJet flight 918 was a double-stop flight from Halifax, taking on and letting off passengers in Jamaica before continuing to Cuba, then heading back to Nova Scotia, where the nowdefunct low-cost charter airline was based. Just after 10 p.m., on Sunday, April 19, 2009, as the last few passengers snaked toward the screening area, a lanky figure appeared among the tourists.
Handsome and young, wearing shorts and loafers, the man looked like any other well-to-do Jamaican. When security guards asked him to walk through the metal detector, however, he refused. He hitched up his shirt to reveal a gleam of silver, then pulled out a .38 revolver and sprinted toward the gate where the Boeing 737 sat waiting.
Onboard, eight crew members and 159 unsuspecting passengers were already seated when the gunman entered. The pilot, Captain James Murphy, came out of the cockpit to investigate, and flight attendant Heidi Tofflemire and copilot Glenn Johnson locked the door behind him, sealing off the flight deck. When the man announced that he needed to leave Jamaica that night, James lied and said the plane still needed to be
refueled. That’s when the hijacker placed the gun’s muzzle against the pilot’s throat. “I am God,” he said. “I like to take lives.”
CAROLINA SANTIZO ARRIOLA, 28, had been a flight attendant for just over six months, always taking sameday flights and returning home to Toronto each night to care for her seven-year-old son, Thomas. It was a tough job for a single mother, but Carolina always thought back to her first months in Canada, when she’d arrived from Guatemala as a six-year-old who didn’t know a single word of English. If she could survive that, she told herself, she could survive anything.
She’d never worked a red-eye before, but that week she agreed to cover a sick colleague’s shift, leaving her son with her parents. Carolina was midcabin handing out customs forms when she heard a commotion up front. A passenger came racing back, alarmed, and told her there was a man with a gun on board.
The flight attendant stared in stunned silence. It felt like something out of a movie. As she moved forward, however, Carolina saw the cockpit was closed and a tall young man with a wild look in his eyes was holding a
gun to the captain’s neck. She didn’t know what to do, but she knew she couldn’t leave her co-worker, a father and a husband, with the gunman.
As a flight attendant, Carolina had been taught to always smile: When a passenger is being difficult, smile. When you’ve dropped a tray of glasses on the floor, just beam and pretend everything’s okay. And so, without fully realizing it, she broke out in her friendliest grin as she approached the gunman.
The gunman smiled back. Later, she would learn he was Stephen Fray, the 21-year-old son of a respected Jamaican businessman. She would have time to wonder what had happened to the young man with such promise, a kid who had gone to good schools and run on the track team. Was he on drugs? Mentally ill? At the moment, all she saw was someone who was panicking. Her instincts told her that the best hope for everyone on board was to get Stephen to calm down.
Stephen told Carolina he wanted billions of dollars. He demanded the pilot fly him to the Middle East, then the United States, then Cuba. Before he could go anywhere, however, he was convinced he needed to refuel the plane, and to get fuel he needed money. Seeing an opportunity, Carolina made a suggestion. “The passengers, they have a lot of money,” she said to him, and suggested he release them in exchange for what they had in their wallets.
Stephen agreed. “I like you,” he told Carolina. Releasing the captain, he made the flight attendant his new hostage, putting the gun to her head. Then he demanded the captain leave the plane to tell officials they needed fuel. James lingered by the aircraft entrance, unwilling to disembark, so Stephen fired his gun toward the door, the bullet just missing the pilot, who escaped down the ramp.
Carolina suddenly found herself in the role of chief negotiator with an armed hijacker. Worried that people were trying to escape through the rear door, Stephen demanded she use the intercom to call the back of the plane. He wanted another flight attendant to come forward to tell him what the passengers were doing.
NICOLE ROGERS HAD become a flight attendant hoping for a life of excitement. The Nova Scotia, Canada native had always liked to travel, and the job promised cosmopolitan glamour. But
TWENTY-EIGHT-YEAROLD CAROLINA FOUND HERSELF IN THE ROLE OF CHIEF NEGOTIATOR WITH AN ARMED HIJACKER.
her year and a half in the air had given her little chance to see the world. And after hundreds of trips, she’d never encountered anything more dramatic than a peeved customer or a flight delay—until that night.
With the in-charge flight attendant and the copilot locked in the cockpit and the captain off the plane, that left Nicole, Carolina, a security contractor and two other flight attendants. It also meant that Nicole, a petite 26-year-old, was now the most senior crew member in the cabin. When the phone rang and the request came to move to the front, Nicole warily stepped forward.
As she approached, she made the same calculation as her colleague Carolina. They would do what flight attendants do: treat their difficult passenger calmly but firmly. They would take charge and get these people off the plane.
Nicole instructed the passengers to exit. “Leave everything behind,” she yelled. “Grab your cash, put it in the bag and get off the plane!” The travelers made their way forward, dropping cash into a bag proffered by Carolina, who still had the gun’s muzzle pressed to her neck. The bag quickly became full, bills scattering across the floor.
Within an hour of the hijacker’s arrival, the flight attendants had managed to get each of the 159 passengers out safely. Now, as Stephen demanded they close the cabin door, the five remaining members of the crew were alone, locked on the plane with the man with the gun.
REVEREND COURTNEY WALTERS had just arrived home when his phone rang. A couple of years earlier, as part of an effort to boost security before the Cricket World Cup in Jamaica, the 49-year-old police chaplain and protestant minister had taken hostage training from a former FBI agent. Now the police determined that he was the best person in Montego Bay to talk down the gunman.
As the police chaplain drove to the airport, he was nervous. He had done some simulations, but how would a real-life hostage taker react?
No hijacker had ever held up an airplane on Jamaican soil. The Reverend was led to the air traffic control tower, where police and military officers had a command center. The Jamaica Defence Force’s counterterrorism squad was flying in from Kingston to manage the situation.
Police wheeled a ramp next to the
WITH THE PASSENGERS OFF THE AIRCRAFT, THE FIVE CREW MEMBERS WERE NOW ALONE, LOCKED ON THE PLANE, WITH THE GUNMAN.
plane and ran a microphone out from the intercom in the cockpit, the only direct line to the hijacker. The Reverend climbed up, ready to negotiate.
Stephen wasn’t interested. He swore at the Reverend and vowed to kill crew members. The Reverend had been taught to make a connection with the hostage taker, but the more he spoke with the erratic young man, the more he worried that reasoning with him might not be possible. Stephen had established that he wasn’t afraid to open fire. If they were forced to shoot him, what would happen to the people on board?
THE HIJACKER GATHERED the remaining five hostages in the front of the plane. He sat behind Carolina, whom he’d placed on a storage container facing the front row of seats, keeping his revolver trained on her.
If she could make Stephen see her humanity, Carolina reasoned, she would have a better chance of survival. And so, over the next eight hours, as the Reverend continued to try to negotiate, and the police and army devised a plan to storm the plane, she talked to him and asked him questions. At times, the young man opened up to her. His parents were divorced, he said, showing her a picture of himself as a kid with his father.
But as the night wore on, Stephen grew agitated and angry. Frustrated that his demands for fuel kept being delayed, he instructed Carolina to open the cockpit door. She didn’t know the security code, she told him. “I’m a single mom,” she said, hoping to draw on the bond they’d estab--
lished. “If you do something to me, you’re going to leave my son alone.”
She felt the pistol against her head. “I don’t care,” Stephen said. “I’ll kill you, and then I’ll find him and kill him, too.”
BY 6:30 A.M., the police were losing the advantage that came with the cover of darkness. It was time for them to make a move.
From her seat, Nicole could see a shadowy figure moving across the tarmac. “Why aren’t you storming the plane?” she thought. Growing paranoid, Stephen demanded the crew shut the blinds and turn off the lights. Finally, he told each of them to take an article of clothing from a carry-on suitcase and put it over their heads.
Carolina’s heart sunk. She’d been convinced that if he could see her face, he wouldn’t be able to kill her. Now it felt as if he was preparing them for their execution.
Suddenly, the cabin phone rang. The copilot, Glenn Johnson, told Stephen
THE WOMEN SHARE
A SPECIAL BOND. TO STAND BESIDE SOMEONE
IN SUCH DIRE CIRCUMSTANCES WAS TO TRULY KNOW THEM.
that the plane had finally been refueled and was ready for takeoff. He just needed him to check out the window to see if the fuel truck was still attached.
Sitting in the dark with a skirt over her head, Nicole felt the gunman squeeze past to get to the window, pressing the muzzle of the gun to her shoulder. All through that interminable night, the flight attendant had fixated on one thought: How do I disarm this maniac? Could she clock him with the fire extinguisher? Hit him with luggage? Each time she’d dismissed the idea as too risky.
Now, as Stephen brushed past, the skirt over her head drooped slightly. Then suddenly counter-terrorist commandos burst in through the door, guns lowered at Stephen, who froze. Nicole seized her chance. She took hold of the pistol pressed against her, wrenched the gunman’s wrist toward the ceiling and twisted the weapon out of his hand.
“Gun, gun, gun, gun, gun!” she yelled and reached across the aisle and passed off the firearm to Carolina. After hours of being threatened, Carolina needed more than anything to escape the cabin. She handed the gun to a commando, then she and Nicole grabbed hands and, ignoring the men yelling for everyone to get down, rushed out of the plane.
A FEW MONTHS later, Stephen Fray was on trial and Nicole flew to Jamai-
ca to testify. “I wanted to show him I was fine, that what he did wasn’t going to change my outlook,” says Nicole, now married and going by Nicole Foran. “I wasn’t afraid of him.”
Stephen’s lawyer pleaded insanity. In the months leading to the hijacking, his family said Stephen had been hearing voices and acting strangely. The attempted hijacking had been a result of paranoid schizophrenia. The court rejected the defence and sentenced Stephen to 20 years in jail.
In December 2013, four years after the most terrifying night of their lives, the two women went to Ottawa for a ceremony to celebrate their heroism. Governor General David Johnston awarded Santizo Arriola the Medal of Bravery for convincing the gunman to release the passengers; Foran was given the Star of Courage for disarming the hijacker.
The evening before the ceremony, the pair had dinner in an Ottawa restaurant. Before that flight, they’d been strangers, but the traumatic experience had forged a unique bond. To stand beside someone in such a dire situation was to know them intimately. “We have a special place for each other in our hearts,” says Nicole. “If she ever needs me, I’m there; if I ever need her, she’s there.”
That night, each woman relived the hijacking with the one other person who could fully understand. Flight 918 was Nicole’s final trip as a flight attendant. Life in the sky had lost its luster; she got engaged and married soon after and had two daughters. Carolina married, too, and her son now has a sister. She went to therapy for several years to work through her post-traumatic stress, though she acknowledges the feeling may never go away. “It’s not constant,” says Carolina. “But it’s there.”
Even so, she still works as a flight attendant, smiling at passengers who have no idea that the woman pouring them tea is a hero—the rookie flight attendant who talked down a hijacker.
Carolina Santizo Arriola (left) and Nicole Foran—née Rogers—were awarded the Canadian Medal of Bravery and the Star of Courage, respectively, for their actions.