by Ken Howell
“Elmer! Where’s your hat? What happened?”
Elmer Keith bareheaded in public was a rare sight. Not even we who’d known Elmer for a quarter of a century or more had ever seen him away from home without his famous Stetson. There were even a few who were convinced that his big Stetson was permanently grafted to his scalp. But here he was, dressed in a suit and carrying his briefcase, but bareheaded. Clearly, something dramatic and probably catastrophic had occurred.
“My plane caught fire!”
Elmer’s eyes were still wide with alarm, and his clothes smelled of smoke. He said that as his flight out of Chicago was climbing to cruise altitude, the passenger cabin had begun to fill with smoke. The captain had announced that there was a problem and that instead of flying on to Washington’s National Airport, he would make an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport.
When the Boeing 727 stopped rolling, Elmer said, the smoke was so thick that he could barely see the opposite side of the passenger cabin. The captain had rushed aft, telling everyone to forget everything in the overhead compartments and “just get out!” Elmer’s briefcase was in his lap, his big Stetson stashed overhead out of reach.
Airport medics had set up arrangements to take care of passengers who needed attention. But Elmer, who could calmly face any number of oncoming lions, buffalo, rhino, or elephant, was scared spitless of doctors, nurses, and hospitals. So he’d fled.
Somewhere along the way, someone with American Airlines had told the passengers that their luggage and effects (any that hadn’t burnt, presumably) would be delivered to them as soon as possible, wherever they would be. Sooner or later, Elmer would be back to normal under the shade of that familiar and reassuring Stetson brim.
Not until more than sixteen years later, long after my old friend’s death, would any of us learn the rest of the story. Elmer and I spent the afternoon of the next day alone together, talking, and he told me more about the incident than he’d told us a day earlier, but recent events overseas made me guess wrong about the source of the “fire” on that American Airlines 727.
Remington had invited the usual crowd of gun writers to Washington, DC, for the 1979 new-products seminar and waterfowl shooting at Remington Farms. Company people met each of us when our flights arrived, and took us to the Remington hospitality suite in a Washington hotel. Once all the writers had arrived, a chartered Greyhound bus would take us across Chesapeake Bay to a motel near Remington Farms on the east side of the bay.
Elmer’s hat and luggage hadn’t arrived by the time we boarded the bus for the ride across the bay. They hadn’t arrived by breakfast the next morning.
That morning, we shot ducks and geese. Elmer borrowed my extra wool shirt and trousers, turned the cuffs back, and went hunting. After lunch at Remington Farms, when the rest of the boys went off to shoot clay birds, Elmer and I went back to the motel. After a few minutes, Elmer brought my extra clothes to my room. His luggage had arrived while we were out waterfowling. The earth was again spinning on its normal axis, with Elmer’s Stetson restored to him. As he and I always did, every chance we got, we spent the afternoon just sitting, and strolling around the motel, chatting about gun stuff
Still curious about the fire on the aircraft, I asked Elmer for more details. He said there’d been a palpable thump and a tremor in the aircraft, then the first thin smoke that had thickened rapidly.
“Elmer, that was a bomb!”
He nodded. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
The bomb had apparently exploded deep inside a cargo hold filled with mail, and the compressible mail had absorbed and attenuated the blast force, then had caught fire and smoldered without flaring into wild, rampaging flames. So it was most likely a mail or package bomb, already a notorious weapon of terrorists. We wondered who’d done it.
Ten days before, a mob had stormed the American embassy in Teheran, taking the hostages whom they eventually held for 444 days. I guessed that Iranian militants had probably mailed that bomb.
The next day, the Washington Post confirmed that it had been a bomb:
“A bomb exploded Thursday in the cargo section of an American Airlines jetliner en route to Washington from Chicago with 80 persons aboard, forcing the 727 to make an emergency landing at Dulles International Airport. The plane, its passenger compartment filled with smoke, landed safely shortly before 1:00 p.m. at Dulles. No injuries were reported among the 72 passengers and 8 crew members [12 people treated for smoke inhalation]. ‘Very quickly the whole fuselage filled with smoke,’ said one of the passengers aboard American’s flight 444 that was headed for Washington National Airport. He called the incident ‘scary, very scary.’
“No one immediately claimed responsibility for planting the bomb on the plane, and authorities said they had not determined any motive for the incident. One knowledgeable source noted that if the bomb were sent through the mail, the sender would have had no way of knowing which flight it would have been placed aboard.”
The rest of the story didn’t become clear until April 1996, in news summaries after an arrest here in western Montana. On a tip from the suspect’s family, the FBI had taken Theodore Kaczynski into custody as the long-sought “Unabomber.” Later catch-up accounts listed Kaczynski’s known or attributed bombs, some of them not suspected as having been his work until the FBI examined his diaries and notes.
One of those caught my attention.
When: 14 November 1979
Where: in the cargo hold of an American Airlines 727, flight 444, from Chicago to Washington.
Copyright © 1996, 2002, Dr Kenneth E Howell. All rights reserved.