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Vietnam Vet Helps 28 Americans to Safety in Panama With PM-Panama, Bjt

December 23, 1989

MIAMI (AP) _ The staff of a Panama City hotel helped hide a group of Americans from Panamanian Defense Forces troops who were looking for American citizens to take hostage after the U.S. invasion, members of the group said.

″We were playing hide and seek with the PDF,″ said Jay Skinner, an Eastern Airlines pilot. ″The Marriott employees helped us stay one step ahead of them.″

On Tuesday night, hours before U.S. troops launched their military action to oust Panamanian Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Skinner and his crew arrived in Panama City on a routine flight from Miami.

At 1 a.m. Wednesday they awoke at the Marriott Hotel to the sound of gunfire.

″I woke up when it started,″ said Skinner, 45, who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. ″I saw the tracers going and heard gunshots and I said ‘Here we go.’ ″

The pilot and his co-pilot, Ron Smith, peered out their windows and saw smoke and gun-toting Panamanians. The invasion had begun.

After staying in his room all night, Smith phoned downstairs for breakfast about 9:00 a.m.

″That’s when the hotel employees came up and took us down to the basement,″ Smith said. Hotel staff explained that the PDF was after U.S. citizens.

While the PDF searched the hotel’s upper floors, the crew and other Americans hid in the basement. Some of the flight attendants hid inside industrial-sized washing machines, while Smith said he covered himself with a cloth and hid in a ditch.

Skinner said the group changed hiding places frequently. He said his military training helped him lead troops from the 82nd Airborne to the group’s final hiding place Wednesday night.

He first established telephone contact with Eastern, and worked out a code to help the troops pinpoint the group’s location.

″They came right to us,″ he said. ″It worked like a fine-oiled machine.″

Smith and Joseph Andraos, the crew’s second officer, both praised Skinner’s skill in handling the situation.

″Jay Skinner is an example of what a captain should be,″ said Andraos. ″He kept things under control.″

Skinner, Smith and Andraos were greeted with cheers from fellow Eastern employees when they brought their empty plane back to Miami International Airport Friday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, a chartered Eastern flight also reached Miami with Skinner’s flight crew and 57 other hotel guests - including those Skinner protected from the PDF.

The fighting upset the gambling streak of one of the passengers, Fairborn Maxwell, a 45-year-old Jamaican who was in the casino when the Panamanians stormed the hotel. They briefly held him but released him when they found he was not American.

″I was winning with a stack of chips when they came in and took us,″ he said ruefully.

He brought his chips back to Miami, because he couldn’t cash them in.

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