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Survivors Tell of Harrowing Plane Crash Escapes

November 25, 1996

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ There were screams as the plane hit the water, a deafening explosion as the cabin broke up, then a few seconds of silence before Takahiko Sugiyama began his desperate struggle for survival.

The Japanese aid worker grimaced in pain today as he recounted his story from the Nairobi hospital bed where he is recovering from Saturday’s Indian Ocean crash landing of a hijacked plane.

``When I heard the captain say he had decided on a crash landing, I thought I had finished my life,″ the 56-year-old Sugiyama said. ``I think I must have lost consciousness, then I felt the water coming in. I realized I was alive.″

Sugiyama was among 52 people who survived when the Ethiopian Airways jetliner ditched off the Comoros Islands. But 123 others were feared dead.

The passengers’ ordeal started minutes after the Boeing 767 took off from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa headed for Nairobi and Ivory Coast.

``Two or three men rushed into the cockpit. It was very quick,″ Sugiyama recalled. ``Then one of them said we had been hijacked.″

Passengers then faced an agonizing wait of more than two hours with no news from the hijackers or the crew. Finally there was terror, as the captain announced he was out of fuel and was making a crash landing in the Indian Ocean.

``It was the kind of panic you see in the movies,″ says Sugiyama. ``Some were crying, some were praying.″

He blacked out when the plane slammed into the sea and broke into three pieces. ``I can’t remember, I did not feel pain, nothing.″

Seawater rushing in revived him. ``I started moving, trying to get out. I was afraid of sharks,″ he said with a laugh that made him wince from his chest wounds. ``I could see the beach, and I was sure then I would be rescued.″

Within five minutes, Sugiyama was picked up by European tourists in a sports fishing boat. ``I was lucky, I could hear people screaming `Help! Help! Help!‴

Based in Tokyo, Sugiyama is a development specialist with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. He was flying to meet his wife and three daughters in Nairobi after a mission in Ethiopia.

He was injured in the right leg, chest and left shoulder, but doctors said his wounds were not life-threatening.

Rekha Mirchandani, a 29-year-old housewife from Bombay, India, and her 4-year-old daughter, Bharti, both survived the crash landing with just cuts and bruises. They escaped by squeezing through a broken window as water poured into the wrecked plane.

``We must have done something good in our lives, or maybe we will do something good in the future. That is why God saved us,″ she said today from her hospital bed.

Sugiyama credited Ethiopian pilot Leul Abate with saving his life.

``The captain made the right decision. He chose the right place, just by the beach,″ he said.

Co-pilot Yonas Mekuria said he pulled the injured Abate out of the cockpit and stayed with him in the water until they were rescued.

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