When Wayne Murray, 52, arranged a week in Montego Bay, Jamaica, last spring with his wife Mina, 51, it was supposed to be a stress reliever. Mina’s sister had just died of cancer. The Halifax couple, avid travellers who have been married for 30 years and have two sons, enjoyed “a perfect vacation—sun every day.” Until, that is, the night they were supposed to leave. On Apr. 19, 2009, a crazed, gun-wielding hijacker raided CanJet Airlines flight 918, taking its crew and 159 passengers hostage, including the Murrays. They initiated a heroic escape. (Stephen Fray was later convicted in Montego Bay and sent to prison for 20 years.)
For weeks after their horrendous ordeal, Wayne, who manages a car dealership, and Mina, a nurse, couldn’t talk about it. At the encouragement of their trauma counsellor, Wayne wrote an account of what happened with Mina. Associate Editor Cathy Gulli spoke to the Murrays about how they faced down a hijacker, and adapted their story for this Maclean’s exclusive.
We left our hotel at 8 p.m. on Sunday for Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay to fly home to Halifax. Half an hour later, we arrived and checked in with CanJet. We went through security, but then, in the departure immigration area, the officer noticed Mina’s boarding pass didn’t match her passport (it read Jacynthe-Mina), so we had to get a new one. Even though it was an inconvenience, we felt good about officials picking up on this small detail.
With that resolved, we passed through a metal scanner where I had to remove my shoes and belt. Mina, who used to work at the liquor store at the Halifax International Airport, noticed there were no security or police officers around, just airport employees. At the duty-free shop, we picked up some Jamaican treats for our friends in Canada, bottles of rum. Just before 10 p.m., we arrived at our loading terminal, and 15 minutes later we took our seats on the plane—4A and 4B.
We talked about how this had been one of the best trips we’d ever had. The last two couples were just about to board the plane when a slim young man went around them, got on and said something to the male captain and a female flight attendant. He was wearing a short-sleeved grey shirt, and in his rush, it billowed. That’s when Mina noticed he had a gun tucked into his belt. She blurted out: “Wayne, that man has a gun!” I didn’t see it, but I could hear the fear in Mina’s voice, so I tried to reassure her. “No, he doesn’t. But if he does, then he’s a sky marshal.”
At that exact moment, the man pulled out his gun, and while waving it around, ordered those last couples to get out. They obliged. That’s when we realized he was a hijacker. Without hesitation, he started shoving the gun in the faces of the captain and flight attendant, yelling: “Yeah, they know I’m here and they know I have a f—ing gun, so close the f—ing door and get this bitch plane in the air!” We assumed “they” referred to security. The captain told the hijacker we couldn’t take off because the door to the plane had to be closed from outside. The flight attendant added that the plane hadn’t been fuelled yet. They sounded calm, which was comforting for everyone except the hijacker, who didn’t believe them. In his frustration, he grabbed the captain’s identification tag from his neck, put it on, and shouted, “Close the plane door! Close the door!”
Ten minutes had passed when a security officer got on the plane and tried to find out what the hijacker wanted. He replied, “This plane is headed to the U.S., so let’s get up in the air.” The officer told the hijacker he was mistaken, this plane was headed to Santa Clara, Cuba and then Halifax. “The plane you want is loading next to us,” he said, which was true. The hijacker moved toward the exit but then, seeming to suspect a lie, he stepped back into the plane’s galley. The security officer stood in front of the hijacker, blocking his view of the passenger cabin. Any time the hijacker moved, the security officer did too.
That’s when the flight attendants started walking up and down the aisle saying to passengers, “We have been trained for this. Try to keep calm.” There were empty seats at the back of the plane, so they moved the people from the first three rows. This left us as the first passengers the hijacker could see. We felt vulnerable. There was fear all around. I wasn’t taking my eyes off the hijacker because I was trying to anticipate what might come next. Mina kept saying, “Wayne, don’t stare at him,” because she could tell the hijacker was mentally unstable.
The security officer, who was talking to someone via a walkie-talkie, said to the hijacker: “They want to know what kind of a gun you have.” The hijacker put it up to his face, read the stamp, and screamed, “It’s a f—ing .38!” He forced the security officer to sit in the first row, and then turned to the captain. The hijacker pushed the gun up to his face again, and then he shoved him out of the plane, yelling, “Close the door! Close the door!” None of the passengers could see the captain, and the doors stayed open. We didn’t think he intended to shut them, but we didn’t know if he actually tried. So the hijacker pointed the gun in the direction of the captain, and pulled the trigger.
“Bang!” The .38 went off and we saw the fiery spray from the gun barrel. A brief chorus of screams, crying and “Oh my Gods!” erupted from the passengers, and then people tried to calm down the children. We all knew to shut up because we were adding fuel to the fire. We heard nothing from the captain. I thought one of three things had happened: the captain was dead . . . or unconscious and bleeding . . . or he’d gotten away. It was almost like being in a movie. You could tell the hijacker felt good pulling the trigger.
Then, with the loaded gun in one hand, the hijacker grabbed the fire extinguisher with his other hand, pulled the safety pin out with his teeth, and tested to see how it worked. We thought this must be his next weapon; we could see the spindle of his gun, and Mina knew it could hold six bullets, max—she used to do a lot of hunting.
The security officer stood up and blocked the hijacker’s view of the passengers again. The flight crew began moving people from rows four through six to the rear of the plane. Some passengers panicked and ran, filling up all the seats and bathrooms. I had Mina sit on a woman and I stood in the aisle facing the front of the plane so I could watch the hijacker’s every move. Mina didn’t like that, so she grabbed me by the belt, and the next thing we knew we were stacked three people in one seat. The man in the window seat was crying, saying the Hail Mary, and praying to God that he not die on this plane, and so was his wife. Mina prayed too. More than once we wondered if this was the end for us.
The hijacker put the gun in the security officer’s face, and forced him to sit down again. Then he realized there were no passengers in the first six rows, and he panicked because he thought we were leaving through the rear of the plane. He started yelling for us to get back in our seats, but no one did, so the hijacker pointed the gun at the back of the plane and said, “You, in the blue, come up front right now.” Everybody was looking at each other to see who was wearing blue. A male flight attendant at the rear, who had a blue CanJet vest on, said, “I’m not going up there. No way,” before dropping to the floor.
A different female flight attendant, probably in her early 20s, stepped over him and approached the hijacker. It was amazing to see. He put her almost in a headlock, with his left arm around her shoulders, and they were bent over. He pressed the gun to her head, and shouted, “Are they leaving from the back?” You could see fear in her eyes, but she was composed. He told her to get people into the front seats. With the hijacker still holding her, the flight attendant made that request over the PA system. No one moved.
Meanwhile, I whispered with another passenger about what to do if the hijacker got into the cockpit and put the plane in motion. I once read a book about how to survive a hijacking. And we knew from 9/11 that if a plane headed for the U.S. was controlled by a terrorist, they’d just blow it out of the sky and deal with 159 insurance claims later. That was the worst case scenario, and it was already really bad.
The passengers were getting pissed off, saying “Open the back doors!” to the flight crew so we could escape, but they wouldn’t. On the plane were 15 or 20 deaf people, four wedding parties going to Cuba, and the vacationers who had been in Jamaica for a week. I tried to tell the others that the flight crew had a plan; all we had to do was figure it out and follow along to stay alive.
The hijacker was pissed off too: he was acting again like when he shot at the captain, yelling, and he still had a hold of the flight attendant and the gun to her head. I figured that if the hijacker felt like he was winning, he wouldn’t shoot anyone. So I stood up in the middle of the aisle and pulled Mina behind me. I put my hands up, and the hijacker pointed at my head. Mina, who at five foot two is nearly a foot shorter than me, stuck her fingers through my belt loops. We walked toward the hijacker. I stared into his eyes. The hijacker kept the gun pointed at us until we got within a metre of him, and then he told us: “Sit down.”
We sat in 4A and 4B again, and then the hijacker, who seemed calmer, let go of the flight attendant. She said to him, “You know they won’t let the plane take off with these hostages on board. So if they give you all their money, will you let them go?” The hijacker grabbed the flight attendant again, pointed the gun at her, and yelled, “Don’t negotiate with me, bitch!”
We looked at each other, and I said, “Mina, this is our way out—that’s their plan.” We ducked down so the hijacker couldn’t see us, and Mina grabbed her purse, and put our U.S. money in her bra. She gave me our passports and I shoved them down my left sock. I put the Canadian money in my right sock except for a $20 bill and two $5 bills. The flight attendant was trying to get people to bring money to the front of the plane, but no one did. I said to Mina, “Let’s roll!” and I waved the Canadian bills in the air. We walked toward the hijacker, who pointed the gun at us again. He was shaking he was so nervous, and he had to let go of the flight attendant so he could grip the gun with both hands. She grabbed a plastic bag for the money.
When we were within half a metre of the hijacker, the gun was not far from my face and I could smell the gun powder and see the terror in the hijacker’s face. As I put the money into the bag, I couldn’t feel my heart beating. I looked to my left, at the doorway where the captain had been shot at, and saw no body or blood. That was a relief.
We waited for instructions. The hijacker lowered the gun to my heart, looked into my eyes, and said: “I’m going to make sure the government pays you $100,000 for doing this. Now get off my plane!” I started to open the double doors to the catwalk, which led to the terminal. The hijacker shouted, “I said only one door!” I slowly opened the left door with my left hand, and grabbed Mina with my right hand. We stepped off the plane. Three police rifles were pointed at us, and behind us was the hijacker’s gun. We feared we were going to be in a shoot-out so we ran as fast as we could, and I yelled, “Get out of my way!”
We barged through the crowd inside the terminal, which was locked down. We kept running until we got to the other end of the airport. We had to get away from the gun. We stopped when we couldn’t go any further. There was no one around. We sat on a bench, hugging and crying. The first thing we said was, “Oh my God, we’re safe.” About 10 minutes later other passengers found us and hugged and thanked us for being brave. They’d followed our lead. Passengers shared money with those who didn’t have any, including children. The hijacker let everyone go, except for the crew.
It was 11:45 p.m., and pandemonium—people lying on benches, screaming, crying, trying to hide in washrooms. There were lineups to use the phones. We paced the airport; adrenalin was still running through our bodies. Half an hour later, airport staff brought in bottled water, chips, muffins, and juice.
The prime minister of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, arrived. His staff catalogued our information, how much money we’d given the hijacker, and medicine that had been left on the plane. He had one of the storekeepers open his smoke shop. We turned the TVs to CNN, which had a camera set up on the tarmac. We could see ourselves, the hijacked plane, and police surrounding it. That was surreal!
At 3 a.m., we were bused to hotels an hour away. We couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing the face of the flight attendant when I only put $30 in the bag, like she feared it wouldn’t be enough. Mina was worried about our family back home. So we got up. That afternoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Golding met us at the hotel. It was calming for us to see Canadian flags. They said a Canadian-trained Jamaican police force boarded the plane at 7:30 a.m. and arrested the hijacker. The crew was safe.
When I shook hands with Prime Minister Harper, I told him that I’d heard inaccurate witness accounts—some people thought the hijacker was an airport employee because they didn’t see him take the captain’s ID. Prime Minister Harper turned to the Jamaican prime minister and said: “My man on the inside says the story’s incorrect.” And then an official came to talk with us. It was comforting and funny.
After we had our pictures taken with the prime ministers, we went back to the airport. This time there were many police and security personnel. We went to the same terminal as the night before and we were assigned the same seats. The flight number was changed from 918 to 99. The flight crew from the hijacked plane walked by and we gave them a standing ovation. We were so appreciative of the crew, especially that young flight attendant. The boarding call came and we made our way to the gate. We noticed a man being taken away by police. He was a passenger who had been drinking too much alcohol. Mina had warned his wife earlier that would be a problem.
It took an hour to board the plane because some passengers were emotional getting back on. Eventually we took off, and everyone clapped and cheered. When we landed in Santa Clara, Cuba, the runway was surrounded by fighter jets, which was unnerving. There were also military personnel with rifles.
After the travellers in Cuba who were headed to Canada boarded, we found out they had been told that the flight had been delayed because of engine trouble, not a hijacking. As the truth spread, one traumatized passenger had a seizure. Some nurses on board helped. Next, we flew through a lightning storm. There were flashes on either side of the plane, and passengers were restless. Mina and I agreed that if we landed anywhere but Halifax we were getting off, renting a car and driving home.
At midnight we finally arrived in Halifax. But the flight crew wouldn’t let us off the plane until the man who’d had a seizure and another woman who wasn’t well had been unloaded. After 45 minutes of being confined in the same seats in which we were hijacked, we were allowed out. All we wanted to do was go home.
The Murrays, who haven’t travelled since the hijacking, plan to visit Negril, Jamaica, for one week next spring, courtesy of the Jamaican government, CanJet and Sandals Resort.