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Bemidji Women's Expo: Survivor to share lessons from escape

On Nov. 23, 1985, Jackie Pflug's flight on EgyptAir 648 took off from Athens, Greece, for Cairo, Egypt, where she was living at the time working as a teacher in an American school.

Pflug was traveling alone. She had been in Athens with her husband and a volleyball team, but they had opted to stay in Greece an extra day.

Ten minutes after takeoff, five terrorists of the Abu Nidal Organization, calling themselves the Egypt Revolution, hijacked the plane. They were armed with guns and grenades.

An Egyptian air security agent opened fire, killing one of the terrorists. The security agent was cut down in a rain of bullets by the remaining terrorists. The bullets also penetrated the plane's fuselage, causing the plane to lose pressure. The pilot had to bring the plane down to 10,000 feet so the people on board could breathe.

Because of the damage, wounded passengers and lack of fuel, the plane had to land in Malta against the orders of the Maltese government.

Omar Mohammed Ali Resaq, the terrorist leader, demanded fuel to continue the planned journey to Libya, and threatened to kill a passenger every 15 minutes until his demands were met.

One of the first things the terrorists did when they took over the plane was check passengers' passports.

"I already knew American and Israeli passengers were being singled out," said Pflug in a phone interview from her home in Eden Prairie, Minn. "I was the fifth person to be singled out."

Resaq first shot an Israeli woman execution-style in the back of the head. He shot another Israeli and then three Americans, each time throwing the bodies out of the plane and onto the tarmac. Anyone who showed signs of life, he shot again.

"I was shot and dumped - I lived through it," Pflug said.

The wisdom she has gained from her experiences will be the focus of her presentation, "The Courage to Succeed," and will be a highlight of the Bemidji Pioneer's Women's Expo Saturday, Aug. 29, at the Jon Glas Fieldhouse.

Pflug has delivered her message throughout North America, and her book, "Miles to Go Before I Sleep," continues to influence peoples' attitudes and values.

She shares a message of hope inspiring people to do and be their best on a daily basis.

After Pflug was shot and thrown out of the plane, she said she lay on the tarmac in and out of consciousness for five hours. She said she knew the terrorists shot to kill the first victim a second time when that woman showed signs of life, so Pflug said she feigned death.

"The terrorists were allowing the medics to take away the bodies in exchange for food," she said.

As they picked up the bodies, the medics discovered Pflug was alive.

Eventually, Egyptian commandos planted explosives, blew open the plane and stormed in. Of the 98 people who had been on board, 59 died.

Resaq survived, ditched his weapons and pretended to be an injured passenger. He was recognized at the hospital by passengers and arrested. He was tried in Malta and sentenced to 25 years. He served eight years.

He was later tried in the United States, and Pflug attended the trial. He was sentenced Oct. 6, 1996, to life in prison with a recommendation of no parole.

"We put him away for life in a federal prison, supermax in Colorado Springs," she said.

During the two days of terror on the plane, Pflug said she was in shock, but able to pray.

"I had a deep belief in God, and I felt everything would by OK whatever the outcome, whether I lived or died," she said.

But recovery was difficult, and she still bears the scars of brain injury, impaired short-term memory, vision problems and trauma-induced epilepsy. Her marriage dissolved three years after the hijacking, possibly a casualty of the trauma.

She was single for seven years, then remarried and has a child.

She went into therapy, which she said gave her the tools to work through the injuries, bitterness, anger and sadness. Her perseverance has allowed her to make peace with herself and give some closure to the terrorism incidents. She was able to visit Cairo and say goodbye to the teachers and students at her school. She also visited Malta and thanked those who saved her life.

"My grandma always told me, good always comes from something bad, but you have to work at it," Pflug said.