A government auditor rescued from a hijacked Kuwaiti airliner last week said yesterday "it is a very dangerous thing to be an American" overseas. At the same time, he said that beatings and his six-day ordeal left him so exhausted that he almost fell asleep as hijackers prepared to blow up the plane.
Charles Kapar said he survived, while two other employes of the Agency for International Development were killed, in part because the hijackers thought he was the senior American official aboard the airliner.
He initially denied that he was a senior official, but changed his tune after a beating. "They beat me with the butt of a pistol on the head," he said at a news conference at the State Department. "They really did a job on me, and I felt it for a couple of days."
"They wanted me to admit I was a very high official, which I did," Kapar said. "I didn't have anything to lose on that one. I gave them a name, a title. And it seemed to work. They said, 'Well, now you're free. Don't worry. You are going to be okay.' "
The white lie, he said, saved "a lot of people" who may have otherwise been killed, including New York businessman John Costa and Kuwaiti officials on board.
But Kapar, a stocky 57-year-old, said he was prepared to die in the final hours of the ordeal Dec. 9 when a hijacker threatened to kill him. The captors by that time were "extremely upset" because they "knew they had lost."
"I told the lead hijacker, 'I may die, but you're going to die too,' " he said. "I told him that to his face."
Kapar also recalled saying, "Well, if I'm going to die, give me my last dinner." He said the hijackers cut the ropes binding him, and "we all had our last dinner together as if we were brothers. They took care of my wounds."
"These people were strange. I think they were sort of mad," he added. "They were planning to do something very, very tragic at the last moment."
Later, Kapar said he found himself "sort of bored" as the hijackers prepared to blow up the plane and moved through the aisle tearing apart seats and smashing baggage.
"This fellow was destroying everything and we were just sitting there. I almost fell asleep I was so bored," he told reporters. "I don't know why. Maybe it was just exhaustion."
But Iranians disguised as medical and maintenance people freed Kapar and eight other hostages at the Tehran airport before the hijackers could carry out their threats.
Kapar said he and Costa did not realize what was going on until they noticed an Iranian medic struggling with one of the hijackers.
"We heard some shots from the front part of the plane. Then we heard a loud bang," he said.
Costa and pilot John Henry Clark untied the red nylon ropes on Kapar's arms. "We all got up and started running like hell," said Kapar. "We got out of the plane and saw all the hijackers laid out. The Iranians had them by the head and the hair. They were just laid out" on the ground.
The news conference was Kapar's first since returning to the United States last Thursday. It was held the same day as funeral services at Arlington Cemetery for his slain AID colleagues, William Stanford and Charles Hegna. Both were shot to death by hijackers.
Kapar, a short man with an easygoing manner and heavily lined face, spoke in a soft, relaxed voice. He appeared in good condition, although his left eye was still red from beatings.
His Vietnamese-born wife, Pham Thi Nga, sat quietly to one side. She is said by friends to be an extremely shy, private woman who did not tell the couple's three children, ages 12, 11 and 8, about the hijacking until after their father was released.
She nodded approvingly as her husband said he did not know if he would ever accept a foreign assignment again. "Today it is a very dangerous thing to be an American," he said.
The family lives in Arlington.
Kapar said he saw no evidence of collusion between the four hijackers and Iranian officials during his six days of captivity, and he praised his rescuers for providing prompt medical attention.
"Their timing was perfect," he said of the Iranians.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz and other administration officials have charged that the Iranians waited too long to act.
Kapar said "the very least" Iranian officials can do is have the four hijackers "tried as murderers."
"If they really want to reconcile their differences with the West, specifically the United States, then they must take the first step," he added. "I think the widows of these two men deserve an answer as to why their husbands were killed."
State Department spokesman Alan Romberg said yesterday the department endorses Kapar's call that the hijackers be tried, but otherwise would not comment on his remarks. Romberg said Kapar was offering his own views, based on his own experiences.
The three AID officials, all veteran government auditors, were returning to their home base in Karachi, Pakistan, after an auditing trip to Yemen when the Kuwaiti airliner, carrying 155 passengers, was hijacked to Tehran Dec. 4.
Kapar said the hijackers killed Hegna, 50, of Sterling, Va., as "an example to show they meant business," but he thought Stanford's death had been an accident.
He provided few details about either slaying.
Kapar said other passengers heard violent shouting after Hegna had been called into the jet's first-class compartment. "We couldn't understand what was being said. Then we heard a shot," he said. "There was a pause and I heard another shot."
He said crew members of the Kuwaiti airliner told him that "there had been some kind of accident" when the hijackers took Stanford, the senior official of the three, onto a loading platform outside the plane.
"Apparently Bill had tripped. Maybe it looked like he was trying to get away and they shot him," Kapar said, adding, "I was told I would be number three."
Kapar described his 140 hours on board the hijacked airliner as a tense series of dramatic emotional highs and lows.
When things appeared to be going well, the hijackers treated the hostages compassionately. At one point, for example, Kapar said one made him a tuna fish sandwich and offered him cigarettes. At other times, the hijackers tormented the captives with insults and threats.
He said the hijackers were armed with grenades and four guns. They placed a black box, which they claimed contained explosives, in a rest room in the first-class section of the plane.
Kapar described his captors as "highly religious people," who prayed constantly and were offended by "anyone drinking whiskey or any kind of sexy type pictures."
He said they spoke Arabic and claimed to be from Kuwait, but he thought they were actually Lebanese. He said they did not claim to be connected with any government, although they referred to loose alliances with Arabs around the globe.