The drama that unfolded at Kennedy airport over the weekend resembled one of those "Airport" movies: a planeload of people sprinkled with celebrities in New York stays calm with wine and song in a hijacked 747 while Charlton Heston waits by a telephone in Los Angeles to save the day.
Someone breaks oopen a case of wine, and Theodore Bikel sings to help keep passengers calm, while actors Sam Jaffe, Dino Martin, superagent Sue Mengers and other Hollywood types wait for the FBI to disarm a woman who says there's nitroglycerine in her handbag.
The 11-hour ordeal, which began Saturday afternoon somewhere above Arizona, ended early this morning when an FBI agent overpowered the distraught woman and found a handbag full of personal effects. not nitroglycerine. nitroglycerine.
The woman, identified by the FBI as Irene McKinney, 49, of Los Angeles, was taken shortly after 4 a.m. to the federal Metropolitan Correction Center in lower Manhattan to await arraignment in Brooklyn federal court, probably Monday or Tuesday, on charges of air piracy and hijacking.
Described by other passengers as rather short, with a white headband over her dark hair, the woman sat in the rear of the plane while a five-man negotiating team began communicating with her shortly before 10 p.m. Saturday. FBI agent Walter Yost, who sat near her on the plane in the latter stages of the negotiations, finally subdued her shortly after 2 a.m. today.
When Yost rushed the hijacker, a flight attendant grabbed her white flight bag and passed it outside to members of the New York police department's bomb squad. They found no explosives in the bag.
Shortly after United Flight 8 left Los Angeles with 119 passengers and a crew of 12 at about 2 p.m. Saturday, the hijacker passed a written hijack message to a flight attendant to be given to the captain, claiming she had nitroglycerine in her bag and was prepared to use it. Capt. Thomas Cook immediately radioed the information to Federal Aviation Administration officials, who monitored the rest of the flight.
Once on the ground at Kennedy, the plane sat for 6 1/2 hours while FBI agents negotiated with the woman, who was described as recently divorced and distraught over losing custody of her two children.
Singer Bikel gave a 2 1/2-hour concert to ease the tension in the plane. Saying later that singing is therapy for him, Bikel picked up his guitar and opened with "Time in a Bottle" while another passenger broke out a crate of wine.
Jaffe, also a passenger, said Bikel's singing was very helpful. "I sucked on a lollypop as a pacifier while he sang," the gaunt, gray-haired actor said with a smile.
"They opened a case of booze, what's-his-name sang some songs, and everyone enjoyed themselves," said Francis Oakley of South Salem, N.Y. "I mean, anyone who wanted to could have a good time."
"Nobody was petrified," added Jules Brenin of Great Neck, N.Y. "None of us applauded Bilkel, though, because we didn't want the hijacker to think we were having too good a time."
Early in the drama, the hijacker said she wanted actors Charlton Heston or Jack Lemnon or actress Lindsay Wagner to read over national television her demands, which FBI spokesmen described as "rather incoherent and extremely personal in nature."
The demands are in a rambling 25page document which initially was thought to have been left somewhere in the Los Angeles airport.
In fact, the woman had the list with her on the plane, but Heston, told by the FBI of the demand, raced to Los Angeles airport to do whatever he could to help. He waited for five hours at the airport, but never talked with the woman.
Shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday, the hijacker agreed to allow 25 passengers -- 7 men, 12 women and 6 children -- to leave the plane, after negotiators convinced her that those individuals were ill.
Inside the airport, when news broke four hours later that the hijacker had been subdued, bedlam erupted as the passengers left the plane. The fears and frayed nerves among loved ones evaported instantly amid tearful reunions, bathed in the bright lights of television cameras.
The Los Angeles Times described McKinney as "eager for the world to learn of her 'new concept' for a universal religion based on a technological heaven on earth after a massive solar explosion."
"She had all this technological stuff which she seemed to understand just perfectly," recalled Frank Godfrey, a real estate agent who had rented her his two-bedroom townhouse in Orange County near Los Angeles since Oct. 2 for $335 a month.
McKinney's terrestrial heaven, Golfrey said, included an end to disease and criminal wrongdoing, the elimination of death, and electronic devices that would improve bodily functions. CAPTION: Picture 1, Irene McKinney, 49, is arrested on air piracy charges. AP; Picture 2, With hijacker captured, passengers from Los Angeles leave plane at New York airport, ending 11-hour ordeal. Copyright (c) David Harris