Its charred doors obscenely ajar and its windows darkened by soot, the burned-out hulk of a Boeing 737 was all that remained of EgyptAir Flight 648, once bound from Athens to Cairo with 98 passengers and crewmen aboard. As investigators milled about on the tarmac of the airport at Valletta, Malta's capital, police and rescuers sifted through the fuselage for victims, their possessions and any clue that might help explain what had happened aboard the ill-fated craft. Occasionally a stretcher shrouded in plastic would emerge, a macabre reminder that the jetliner had become a tomb for 57 travelers.
Ever since commercial airliners first became a serious target of international terrorism in 1968, the world has feared the specter of a planeload of innocent people being destroyed, by either design or accident, in the course of a hijack drama. Over and over, at airports in the Middle East--and notably at Entebbe in Uganda and at Mogadishu in Somalia--the specter had been miraculously dispelled, the lives of innocents spared. The latest hijacking ended far more disastrously. Because of the demonstrated savagery of this particular band of terrorists, and perhaps because of mistakes made by well-intentioned governments and rescuers, only 38 of those aboard EgyptAir 648 survived.
Already the postmortems were under way in Malta, Cairo and various Western capitals. Malta's Prime Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici defended his country's long-standing policy of refusing to refuel a hijacked plane unless terrorists first released all passengers aboard. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accused the hijackers of being members of a Palestinian terrorist group opposed to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and closely aligned with Mubarak's enemy, Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi. Though Mubarak did not mention the group by name, he seemed to be referring to the Abu Nidal faction, which has previously taken responsibility for a number of particularly heinous terrorist crimes.
Mubarak had been criticized in October for his seemingly indecisive handling of the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro, in which one passenger was killed. This time he moved briskly, sending a team of 80 specially trained commandos to Malta even as he placed his armed forces on alert and bolstered his defenses along the Libyan border. He authorized the commando operation only after the plane's captain, Hani Galal, told the tower at Valletta: "Please do something. They're going to kill us all."