To nowhere and back: Burmeister shares story of 1970 hijacking in book
WORTHINGTON -- The banner headline on the front page of the Sept. 8, 1970, Daily Globe proclaimed "Hijackers threaten lives of 180," and the Associated Press story beneath it recounted the taking of several airliners by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an Arab guerrilla organization.
While it was a shocking world event, the story would have probably been of little consequence to most of the Daily Globe's readers, except for one thing: two Worthington residents were aboard one of the planes, which were forced to land at a small airfield in the middle of the Jordanian desert.
Here's the local story that accompanied that international news:
City couple aboard hijacked airliner
Mr. and Mrs. William Burmeister of Worthington were passengers on the Trans World Airlines jet that was hijacked to Amman, Jordan.
Mrs. Linda Zeiner, Mrs. Burmeister's sister, said this morning that Mrs. Burmeister has left the hijacked plane and is staying at a hotel in Amman. Burmeister, however, is still being held hostage on the plane.
The Burmeisters, who were visiting relatives in Frankfort, Germany, and were expected back in Worthington Saturday, delayed their return by a day. When they did not arrive on Sunday, the family called Frankfort, and the TWA office there confirmed the fact that the Burmeisters were passengers on the hijacked plane.
The family has had no further word about the Burmeisters' condition and is relying on information from the radio and television reports.
Burmeister is employed by the city water department, and Mrs. Burmeister works at Worthington State Bank.
Mrs. Burmeister's mother, Mrs. Agnes Burns, is a resident of Worthington, and Burmeister's parents live in Round Lake.
William "Bill" Lewis Burmeister and his wife, Marlys, survived their hijacking ordeal, although Bill was held hostage for 28 days. Now widowed and living in Bullhead City, Ariz., Bill recently published his own account of the experience, "Sky-Jacked by PFLP Pirates: To Nowhere and Back."
A 1957 graduate of Round Lake High School, Bill was hired in 1962 by the Worthington Parks Department.
"I transferred to the street department in 1965 and worked there for 18 years," he explained in a recent phone interview from his home. "I ran the heavy machinery for them."
He married Marlys Burns, who was from Brewster, and they had spent several months planning the 1970 trip to visit her sister and brother-in-law, who was stationed at a military base in Mannheim, Germany. Due to a ticketing glitch, the Burmeisters were returning a day late from their overseas adventure and had the supreme misfortune of being aboard the hijacked TWA flight.
"Somebody bumped my arm. I removed my headphones and looked up to see what or who it was," recounts Bill in the book about the moment he realized something was amiss on the flight. "I thought it could be the flight attendant walking by with the service cart or my wife, but the first thing I saw was the glint of a nickel-plated revolver and someone yelling.
"The guy who brushed against me pushed into a girl in front of him who had a hand grenade. They were both dressed in dark green outfits with black bandanas hanging around their necks. I didn't see it, but the other passengers said that she had pulled the pin."
The terrorists took command of the plane, forcing the pilots to land in Jordan. It was part of a larger plot that involved the hijacking of four airliners to force the release of Palestinian guerrillas being held in Israel. After a short time, most of the women and children on the plane, including Marlys Burmeister, were released. But the men were pawns in an international conflict that was far removed from Bill's realm of understanding.
"When the terrorists interviewed me, they asked me a lot of questions that I had no answer for," Bill recalled. "They thought I was from Israel. They thought I had two passports and all that."
The lax airport security that had allowed the terrorists to board the plane also created some confusion about Bill's identity. The customs agents at the airport had neglected to stamp his passport, so the terrorists couldn't identify his point of departure. Eventually they accepted that Bill didn't have any ties to Israel, but that didn't change his situation. He, the other men on the flight and a few women who had been working on Israeli kibbutzim were kept captive.
"Living on that plane for 10 days in the desert, you can't hardly get rid of that," said Bill about the clarity of his memories of almost 42 years ago. "And it was 100 degrees there, too. It was the desert -- hot in the day, cold at night. It's something that stays with you for a few years."
After 10 days, the prisoners were moved, and Bill remembers that as one of the most terrifying parts of the ordeal, because they didn't know if their fate was to be shot in the desert.
"When we were taken off the plane, right around midnight, they backed up the trucks and loaded us in there," he described. "We didn't know what they were planning. That was when I was the most scared. We were driving out in the middle of the desert, no road. You had to go along with it, because it's not like the movies where somebody can come in and save you. There was nobody coming to the rescue."
The captives were taken to the first of the two hideouts where they would pass the time by playing cards made out of scrap pieces of paper. Their rations were meager and the facilities were crude, with one toilet (that overflowed) for 32 people and pieces of propaganda pamphlets used for toilet paper. The second hideout was located in the midst of heavy fighting, bringing more concerns about the likelihood of survival.
The hostages' release was finally negotiated, and they were allowed to leave in a cargo plane, going first to Cyprus and then to Rome, Italy, where President Nixon was visiting.
"We got to meet President Nixon," Bill related about the president's visit on their plane. "He didn't really talk much. He sat there while we asked questions about how they got us out, and he asked us where we were from, general questions like that. The Secret Service wouldn't let us get too close. He told us that there were negotiations that had worked through the channels, didn't go into specifics. But there was a trade done from Israel. They released some of the Palestinians. They normally wouldn't have done that, but there were just too many of us to leave us there."
Marlys, who after her release had returned to Worthington and her bank job while she awaited news of her husband, flew to New York City to welcome him back to the States. Then, on Sept. 29, Bill and Marlys were greeted by a large contingent at the Worthington Airport. Here's the beginning of the front page story from the Sept. 30, 1970, Daily Globe, written by Bob Cashel:
Burmeister is home
Worthington's heart went out to Bill and Marlys Burmeister Tuesday afternoon as they walked down the steps from the North Central Convair at Municipal Airport. Burmeister had been held captive in Jordan for 21 days, a prisoner of a guerilla group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Burmeister, some 25 pounds lighter and deeply tanned from his ordeal in the Jordanian desert, was smiling as he and Marlys stepped onto the concrete apron and into the crowd of relatives and newsmen. Microphones and television tape machines recorded the event and Bill, showing clear traces of fatigue, smiled through it all, answered the questions, and was finally allowed to greet mother, father, brothers and an assortment of other friends and relatives.
Visible in the cluster of close friends and relatives were neat, hand-printed signs held high above heads and pinned onto blouses and shirts of nieces and nephews. "Welcome Home Bill," the signs said. Those signs spoke for the entire community....
Although he quickly gained back the weight he'd lost, the emotional and psychological recovery was much more difficult, and there was no counseling available at the time.
"The city gave me all the time I wanted," before coming back to work, Bill noted. "They told me to just come back when I was ready. That was one of the deals I really appreciated. I'd lost a lot of weight, and they wanted me to go to the hospital and get checked out for the stuff you can pick up in those foreign countries, so I had to go through those tests. But the best thing was just to get back into a routine."
The Burmeisters moved to Arizona in 1978, first settling in Scottsdale, where Bill did maintenance for apartment complexes. Marlys died in 1996 from cancer, and Bill now lives in Bullhead City, just across the border from Laughlin, Nev. His main activity in retirement is bowling four times a week.
Getting his recollections of the 1970 hijacking in print has been cathartic, even after four decades have passed.
"I had it on tape for a long time, just kind of forgot about it," he said. "It stayed in the closet for a long time. I had my niece type it up. She could type as fast as the tape recorder could play, so she got it pretty much down, and I added in what I could."
For a few years after the ordeal, Bill kept in touch with some of his fellow prisoners, including one woman, Sarah, who served as a translator as she knew Arabic, but by now they have all lost touch.
Bill notes that two years after the hijacking, the PFLP became known as Black September when its terrorists kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. His own experience certainly heightened his awareness of world events and particularly hostage situations.
"They weren't quite as vicious as they are now," he said about the terrorists. "You could get along with the guards pretty well, although they threatened you every day. I feel for the person pretty much, the captive. I kind of know what they're experiencing."
One copy of "Sky-Jacked by PFLP Pirates" is currently available at the Nobles County Library in Worthington. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy can email Bill: email@example.com.
Beth Rickers is the features editor at the Daily Globe. She can be reached at 376-7327; email firstname.lastname@example.org