Friday, December 12, 2008

Fast draw

Fast draw
Hagai Cohen

Dressed in my El Al airline-pilot uniform and ready to go, I moved towards the door. It was an unusually hot morning in Amsterdam and, at that time, the Hilton did not have air- conditioning. The windows were open but the air was still.

I heard the screams of police sirens from various directions simultaneously. It was strange to experience such massive police activity especially as you never find a police officer when you need one.

I crossed to the window where, I could not see much. I could only hear more sirens. It did not bother me much, so I left my room and walked to the elevator. I pressed the lobby button and started descending. As the elevator zoomed past the third floor, I heard shots.

The massive police activity along with the gunshots could mean but one thing - terror activity. “My crew,” I thought, ”is the target.” As an Israeli airline, we had been a marked target for a long time.
My immediate reaction was to look for the 'close door' button of the elevator. I wanted to stop the doors from opening. But the 'close door' button doesn’t keep the elevator doors closed; it merely gives a polite person the chance to show kindness to his fellow riders when in a hurry.
As soon as the elevator reached the ground floor, the doors opened. There was I with the doors wide open and furiously pushing on the ‘close door’ button. On the lobby floor, I could see a young man lying in a pool of blood. He was our air marshal, agent Katz.

I leaped out of the elevator and rushed to his side. He had been shot in his thigh. Judging by the amount of blood spurting from the wound, it appeared to be serious. I took off my tie and tied it tight just above the wound. The blood flow slowed down but despite this, Katz kept slipping in and out of consciousness.

“Hold on,” I yelled in his ear, “I've stopped the bleeding. You will soon be in a hospital.” I looked up and saw only police officers rushing about in the lobby.

During one of his conscious states, I asked, “What happened?” He answered, “I do not know,” and continued haltingly, “Three men with drawn guns.” Pause. “Each carrying a bag. Rushed into the lobby.” Pause. “Looked Mediterranean.” Pause. “I pulled my gun and they all shot at me.” Pause. “I shot back.” Pause. “I hit one of them.” Pause. “My gun is only a .22 so it hardly grazed him.” Pause. “He shot back with a nine millimeter Browning.” Pause. “It knocked me off balance.” Pause. “Please hide my gun.” Pause. “It’s illegal in Holland.” Pause. “It’s loaded and cocked.” Pause. “Be careful.”

With all the spectators milling around us it was not easy to hide the gun. “Move aside," I shouted. "Give the emergency crew a clear way.” In the seconds that everybody turned to look for the alleged emergency crew I dragged the gun close under my hat, and stowed it in my belt.
It took the paramedics about five minutes to arrive and another five minutes to get the now unconscious Katz to the emergency room.

I was left in the lobby with blood all over me. As my hat lay in a pool of blood, I decided to leave it there, on the floor. My tie was on agent Katz’s leg. Despite the heat, I buttoned my jacket with my bloody hands just to conceal the gun. Agent Katz was taken off the 'critical list' the very same day.

The excitement in the lobby was because no one seemed to know who the gunmen were or what brought them to visit the Hilton. The police, who had entered the lobby only seconds after the shooting began, collared two of the three gunmen and started their interrogation right away. It became apparent that the police knew more than they were willing to reveal.

“Attention ladies and gentlemen, attention ladies and gentlemen,” announced a voice on the speakers. “All guests are requested to remain in their rooms, lock their doors and wait for a police escort to the lobby. Do not open the door until you check the viewer. Make sure you see a uniformed officer before opening the door.”

This message was repeated several times in many languages. In the lobby, the police arranged furniture barriers in front of the elevators. Behind each barrier stood an officer with a drawn gun.

Frightened people kept pouring into the lobby, many of them dressed in pajamas. Still suspecting more terror, as the third gunman mentioned by Katz had not been detained and he could be a suicide bomber, I advised the crew to stay out of sight and not huddle together. I myself started walking around mingling and talking with the guests, hoping I might spot the man in the lobby.

Some hotel employees placed a circle of chairs around agent Katz blood and put a large tablecloth over it. Most of the people came into the lobby after it happened and I, in my blood stained uniform and several police officers with drawn guns were the only evidence of the horror of several minutes earlier.

Talking to the people was an interesting experience. They were more than willing to talk to the bloodstained hero who had just arrived from the front. They all expressed a desire to hear my story. I met many fascinating people who related many hotel suspense stories of their own. A newly wed young couple with eyes puffy from lack of sleep complained, “They pulled us out of bed and we haven’t slept for twenty-four hours."

A fat woman of about forty emerged from the elevator with a sixteen-year-old boy on her arm. They both moved rapidly to a corner of the lobby. The boy, blushing constantly, looked confused and started to stutter when I spoke to him. I stopped short of asking him if she was a good teacher. I thought the woman was pathetic. Had it been a forty-year-old man with a girl of sixteen, I would have thought him a pervert.

A slant-eyed couple parted from each other after a brief whispered conversation, the man showed the police officer his identity card and was the allowed to leave the hotel. Later, I was told by one of the police officers that he was the First Secretary at the Korean embassy. His lady friend explained after her friend was long gone, “I am the Korean ambassador’s wife. I came to Amsterdam for the shopping.”

A young sexy looking woman, sitting alone in a nightgown, with a man's jacket over her shoulders, told me, “I am here for a convention.” A quick glance round the lobby and I spotted the man with matching trousers who completely ignored her.

At some point I decided to go to the bathroom to unload the gun but unfortunately the police permitted no one into the bathroom without an escort. I could of course have locked myself in a booth but I could not risk the gun's offloading sound being heard by the officer. We were under curfew. No one was allowed in or out of the hotel. The hotel management offered coffee and croissants and all of us kept speculating while we enjoyed the refreshments.

Upon my demands, the police commissioner released a few snippets of information. “The three gunmen were not terrorists, they were bank robbers,” he said. “In the bags they carried their loot. They had to settle for very little money as the lock on the safe was broken and refused to open. They were also unlucky with their escape vehicle. It broke down in front of the Hilton." He explained how the police came so quickly. "The information about the robbery was transmitted immediately over the police radio. Six hundred police officers in their cars had been heading for the Ajax stadium for a fun day when they were notified of the robbery at the bank. So six hundred police officers started chasing the robbers. They are around the hotel at this very moment looking for the missing felon. He must still be on the Hilton premises.”

Three hours after the beginning of the ordeal, the PA address system came on again. “Ladies and gentleman this is the Commissioner of Police speaking. We are happy to inform you we have got our man. You are now free to go. Thank you very much for your cooperation." During the announcement we saw two huge Dutch officers escorting a handcuffed medium-sized man through the hotel lobby to the police car outside. The man was well groomed, with a fine suit and shiny shoes. He looked like my next-door neighbor and no one could possibly think he was the bank robber.

Moments later, our crew was rushed to the airport with a police escort. They knew we had been involved in the shooting, but they did all they could to get us out of the country fast. Once inside the cockpit, I unloaded the gun and put on a fresh set of clothes.

I was subpoenaed twice to the court as a witness. I learned there that when the last bank robber realized he was surrounded, he went into several rooms and helped himself to a new outfit, dropped his gun and old clothes into the laundry chute and so became a new and respectable looking man.

He went directly to the hairdresser, where he was given the full treatment. While shaving his client's mustache, buffing his nails and dying his hair, the Italian Mario, like typical hairdressers, chatted with his client. The robber told Mario he was from Sardinia although he was really from Corsica. Mario knew by the man's accent and his selection of words, (many French words had crept into the Italian spoken in Corsica) that the man was lying. The suspicious Mario informed the police.

During the trial, while listening to the proceedings, I felt really sorry for the unfortunate bank robbers. I decided future bank robbers must have better training. I wrote these quick reference notes for them.

1. Pick a bank where the safe works properly and opens on time. If not you will have to settle for small change.
2. Choose a day police officers are working and not on vacation.
3. The escape vehicle should be a late model, thus less susceptible to breakdown.
4. If you must use an old car make sure it breaks down in a side street and not in front of the Hilton.
5. If you have to run into the Hilton with drawn guns make sure there are no armed guests in the lobby.
6. If you claim to be from Sardinia, do not speak with a Corsican accent.
7. If unable to comply with all of the above, consider a career change.

The End

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