Leon Klinghoffer was picked to die after the terrorists shuffled the passports of English-speaking passengers to decide the order in which they would be killed.
The 69-year-old retired New York businessman, confined to a wheelchair by two strokes, was shot by the hijackers of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro while the ship waited off the Syrian port of Tartus on Tuesday.
Klinghoffer, who was Jewish, was separated from the more than 500 passengers and crew on the ship. After he was killed on the forward deck, the hijackers hurled his body into the sea.
In interviews with some of the hostages who survived the 51-hour siege of terror and several ambassadors who boarded the ship here, a picture emerged Thursday of the events that led up to the death of Klinghoffer.
Neil Kantor, whose wife, June, was among the American passengers held hostage on the Achille Lauro, said the hijackers shuffled the passports of English-speaking passengers to decide the order in which they would die.
“Leon Klinghoffer was number one,” said Kantor, a friend of the Klinghoffer family who had disembarked in Alexandria for a tour of the pyramids. “Mildred Hodes was number two,” Kantor added. “This is what the captain said.”
Kantor said he could not remember the name of the third person on the list, but “the fourth name was Silvia Sherman.”
“So they did have a list, and they did it by taking the passports and apparently shuffling them and the order they came out that was the death list,” Kantor said.
Another passenger, Seymour Meskin, 71, of Union, N.J., said that shortly before Klinghoffer’s death, the terrorists took the American passengers, along with a number of other Westerners, to an upper deck and forced them to kneel for three hours.
Klinghoffer “was left behind,” Meskin said. The terrorists said that “he was not feeling very well and was at a hospital,” Meskin said. “But no one was allowed to see him.”
Meskin’s wife Viola, who was also a hostage, finished the story, saying, “We could hear gun shots and a splash.”
Liner in Port
With the two-day ordeal over, the blue-and-white ocean liner rode peacefully at anchor in front of the seedy headquarters of the Suez Canal Authority, where it tied up at about 4:15 a.m. Thursday morning.
One of the first ambassadors to board the ship was the Italian envoy to Egypt, Gino Migliuoli, who said the four Palestinian hijackers who commandeered the vessel on Monday were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades.
After taking over the ship off the Egyptian coast Monday, Migliuoli said, the Palestinians separated the American and British passengers from the remaining hostages and placed barrels of gasoline around them. The hijackers threatened to set the gasoline afire if the British and Americans tried to move.
Mrs. Meskin said the gunmen’s behavior swung from extreme acts of cruelty to simple kindness.
One passenger asked for water, she said, and a gunman personally washed a glass and brought it to him.
“But the next minute, when Marilyn Klinghoffer (the widow of the slain American) was on the floor exhausted, one got up and kicked her with the butt of a rifle,” she said.
Migliuoli said the gunmen appeared frenetic, firing their guns at random into the walls of the ship. One Italian crewman was wounded by flying splinters in a shooting incident.
When asked why no one aboard had resisted the hijackers, he replied: “Nobody knew there were only four hijackers. The impression of the passengers was that there were at least 20 hijackers.”
Mystery to Hostages
The killing of Klinghoffer remained something of a mystery to the hostages, since no one except the hijackers was present when he was slain.
The ship’s Italian captain, Gerardo de Rosa, was quoted as saying that he heard gunshots from the front deck just below the ship’s bridge, where he was at the time, while the ship waited off Tartus. The Syrian authorities later turned the liner away, refusing to let it dock.
When De Rosa went to investigate, the hijackers threatened to shoot him
At that point, “the captain saw the victim with blood on his legs,” Franz Bogen, the Austrian Ambassador, said. “No one else saw the shooting.”
“The American was not in any condition to resist,” Migliuoli, the Italian ambassador, said. “He was in a wheelchair.”
The captain’s comments to the ambassadors appeared to contradict his earlier radio report, after the ship left Syrian waters, that “everything is very good on my ship.” The contradiction remained a mystery Thursday, although it is possible the captain was forced at gunpoint to make a reassuring report.
De Rosa said in an interview Wednesday that the terrorists had kept him under constant guard, using Soviet-made submachine guns.
Mrs. Klinghoffer and 10 other Americans took a bus late Thursday to Cairo to catch a plane for the United States, it was reported here.
Earlier Thursday, Mrs. Klinghoffer left the ship for about half an hour to telephone relatives in New York. Wearing a flowered print dress with a white sweater over her shoulders, she walked slowly on the arm of her friends, the Kantors. Mrs. Klinghoffer’s face was frozen in a wide-eyed, stunned mask.
“She seemed more terrified than shocked,” said one official who accompanied her.
An enormous retinue of television cameramen and still photographers pursued the Americans after they walked on the rusty floating dock that connected the Achille Lauro with the quayside.