Survivors look back at terrorist attack
Every year at the end of May, Shelley Black and her childhood friend, Jennifer Parnell, get together, raise a glass of wine and toast l’chayim – to life.
Shelley and Jennifer have every reason to celebrate life. Forty years ago, on May 30, 1972, they very nearly lost theirs. The two of them were teenagers embarking on what they hoped would be the trip of a lifetime – a visit to Israel followed by a trek through Europe.
Flying El Al from Paris, they had just arrived in the airport in Lod, today’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Excited about their adventure, they were first off the plane and first through customs. They were removing their luggage from a conveyor belt when three terrorists, members of the Japanese Red Army, allies of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who had just arrived from Rome, pulled machine guns and grenades from their baggage and started firing indiscriminately at arriving passengers.
Twenty-six people were killed and 71 wounded before two terrorists died and the third was captured by Israeli security personnel.
It was an incident that shocked the world and captured international headlines – no one had shot up an airport before.
Black can remember the incident as if it happened yesterday. It was a traumatic experience for a teenager, she said. The dead, the dying and the wounded were all around them. When the shooting began the two fell to the ground and held their purses over their heads, an instinctive reaction to save themselves from the deadly barrage of flying bullets and shrapnel.
“I saw him take out a machine gun and start shooting. It sounded like firecrackers, but it wasn’t firecrackers. Bang, bang, bang. If he’d shot to the right, he’d have hit us, but he went in the other direction,” Black recalled.
“I remember hearing shouting and screaming and crying. We held our purses over our heads, as if that would save us from anything.”
Parnell recalls it slightly differently. The two of them, friends since elementary school, hurried off the plane to get their luggage. Black’s was already off the belt and she spotted her bag entering the luggage area. “I ran to get it at the end of he conveyor belt when all of a sudden, there was all these bright lights and incredible noise, which shocked me. Ten feet in front of me was this man, kneeling and shooting in the opposite direction.”
“I was terrified.” After briefly considering jumping the shooter, “survivor mode took over,” Parnell said. She and Black ran in the opposite direction and hid behind a conveyor belt. I remember we lay on our stomachs and said, ‘are you okay, have you been shot?’ We looked at each other and said ‘it’s going to be okay,’ but I felt this could very well be the end of my life.”
Looking up, Black saw a woman with blood gushing from her chest as if from a fountain. There was chaos everywhere.
At one point, Jennifer peeked out from their position next to the luggage carousel to see the terrorist hurling grenades at passengers. He was standing just above her, Black said.
Most of the victims were Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico.
The whole incident likely lasted only a few minutes, but it’s burned into her consciousness and has stayed with her all these years, Black said. She’s kept the suitcase she arrived with, with its bullet holes, and a pair of slacks that likewise are ridden with bullet holes.
One of the terrorists died when his grenade exploded, another was killed in a crossfire with the third gunman. It’s still not known if those were accidental or intentional suicides. The third gunman, Kōzō Okamoto, was arrested.
After the shooting was over and medical personnel tended to the wounded, she and Jennifer were allowed to leave, without being interviewed by police.
“We got up and clutched each other. We said, ‘don’t look there, don’t look down.’ We walked around a lot of bodies that were on the floor and we walked out of the airport,” Parnell said. Outside, survivors were in shock. One person came up to them and said he’d seen two others next to him go down and so he too hit the floor. “He wanted to know if he was shot,” Parnell said, but he wasn’t.
Black’s parents had arranged for them to be picked up at the airport, but the driver, Ezekiel, was sent away.
The pickup was one of the arrangements made in advance to make their trip to Israel go smoothly. They were there to celebrate Shelley’s brother, David’s, bar mitzvah. Some 60 family members, from their homes in Peterborough, Detroit and Toronto were scheduled to fly to Israel, but Black and Parnell decided to get a head start, visit Paris for a few days and arrive in Israel ahead of the others.
Once they exited the airport, they joined two couples from Germany and France in hiring a “sherut” taxi to take them to Tel Aviv. There, Black tired to phone her parents but at first they couldn’t get an international phone line out of the country.
When they explained to the operator they had survived the Lod attack, they were given a line out and they contacted Black’s parents in Montreal. It was the era before the Internet and cable news; they had not heard of the incident.
“We’re okay,” Black told her folks.
Parnell did not want to speak to her parents directly, thinking they’d convince her to return at once. Instead, one of Black’s relatives contacted them to let them know she too was unharmed.
Later she found out her mother had spent the day vacuuming the house all day “so she wouldn’t have to think about what might have happened to me,” Parnell said.
Ezekiel was dispatched to pick them up and he took them back to his apartment in Jerusalem.
“He opened a bottle of wine to drink l’chayim because we were alive,” Black said.
Despite the tragedy, the bar mitzvah went ahead. “It’s so important to celebrate life and those milestones,” Black said.
And they resumed their trip; “We spent three great weeks on a kibbutz. We had the time of our lives,” she said.
Nevertheless, they were still traumatized by their experience. “We were so shaken up that if someone slammed a door, we’d jump a mile high,” she said.
“We were surrounded by [Shelley’s] family and relatives and people close to us and we were with people who kept us close to them for two weeks at the bar mitzvah and touring. I think that really helped,” Parnell said.
From Israel, they continued their vacation to Greece, taking a boat from Haifa instead of flying from the airport. After six weeks traipsing across Europe, they returned home. “We enjoyed every minute of living,” Black said.
The experience was life altering for both of them. “You realize that your life can turn around in a second,” Parnell said. “I think I’ve become more grateful to be alive. Many times after that, if I had a bad day or things weren’t going so well, I’d think I might have died at 17.”
“I appreciate and I have gratitude for what I have in my life, my wonderful family and friends,” Black said. “I was given the opportunity to live my life and so many others were not.”
“You can’t curl up into a ball, you need to embrace life and make the most of it, for the people killed that day and their families. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be honouring their memories,” she added.
That’s why she is a strong supporter of the effort to convince the International Olympic Committee to hold a moment of silence for the 11 slain Israeli athletes, killed by Palestinian wterrorists at the Munich Olympics.
She’d been home in Peterborough a few weeks when the attack took place. “I remember watching what happened and being horrified and feeling empathy for the athletes and their families. I thought, these are innocent people who are having to fight for their lives.”
She also wondered, “How can there be people who value life so little?”
When she sees prisoner exchanges, in which convicted terrorists are released before serving the full term of their sentence, she thinks, “that person does not value life and yet they are the ones being released.”
She was greatly upset when Okamoto, the surviving terrorist, was released in 1985 in a prisoner exchange.
“Every time there is a prisoner exchange, I think of the people who were killed. How does that honour their memory?” Black asked.
“It’s really hard to imagine why they should be free in those prisoner exchanges. It’s heartbreaking to know that people who hold no significance in the lives of others are given their lives back.”
So every year, on the anniversary of the attack, she and Jennifer get together, raise a glass and recall that day.
“For us, it’s important to keep alive the memory of the people who were killed,” Black said.
“In my life, I always try to support Israel and the idealistic tenets it is based on. And we acknowledge with gratitude to God that we were spared, and hope that my life has significance.”