Jubilant Passengers Return from Panama on Eastern Flight
Dec. 23, 1989
MIAMI (AP) _ Jubilant passengers on the first commercial flight to arrive here from Panama since fighting broke out described Friday how hotel employees helped them hide from belligerent Panamanian soldiers.
Most of the passengers, many disheveled and tired, were from the Caribbean and Latin America and had been guests at the besieged Marriott Hotel in Panama City.
Several said the Panamanian soldiers questioned them and separated them from American citizens who were at the hotel.
Eastern Airlines Flight 8302, with 57 passengers and eight crew members, was the first commercial flight from Panama to arrive at this international air travel hub. Airline spokesman Robin Mattel said he's not aware of any earlier commercial flights from Panama to this country.
Those on the flight said they either were aided by Marriott employees to hide from Panamanian soldiers or were liberated when American soldiers retook the hotel.
''The flight back was completely euphoric,'' said Colin Cleary, who lives in Colombia with his wife and 18-month-old child. ''We were so grateful to Eastern to get us back. We had been stuck at (Howard Air Force Base) since 1 Thursday afternoon.
''We were happy and relieved,'' he said of the passengers. ''A lot of us were sleeping on the plane because we haven't had much sleep.''
Cleary said he was hidden in the laundry after being told Panamanian troops were in the hotel. He said many of the Americans were put in ''safe rooms'' by hotel workers early Wednesday.
''Between 2:30 and 3 a.m., the goon squads entered the hotel. They went directly to the 11th floor where there was the biggest concentration of Americans,'' said Joe Clark, a 58-year-old Miami businessman.
''I jumped from my room to the fire escape. I hid on the fire escape all Wednesday morning. I remained there until 5:30 or 6.
''The security man from Marriott took me to a safer place,'' he said ''The goons were coming in and the goons asked him if any Americans were there, and I was hiding behind a door.''
An Eastern pilot, Jay Skinner, said he and other Americans hid in the hotel's basement while the PDF searched the upper floors. Some of the flight attendants hid inside industrial-sized washing machines. Skinner's co-pilot, Ron Smith, said he hid in a ditch covered with a cloth.
Uta Baker, a 45-year-old flight attendant wearing a tuxedo jacket given her by a Marriott maitre d', said she saw flares going up in the middle of the night and thought it was a celebration.
''I went back to sleep and at 6 in the morning, the captain called and told us we were under siege,'' she said.
Some passengers told of being under fire as they were taken to the air base. While U.S. officials have described the continuing operation in Panama as ''mopping up,'' Moses Leader, a Jamaican, said it looked like a battle to him.
''Downtown Panama City is in rubble,'' he said. ''The Americans underestimated the staying power of the PDF,'' Panama's armed forces.
''We had to take cover at the air base. We had to get away from the glass,'' he said.
Fairborn Maxwell, a 45-year-old Jamaican, was upset because he was gambling in the casino when the Panamanians stormed the hotel. They briefly held him but released him when they found he was not American.
He brought his chips back to Miami, because he couldn't cash them in.
''I was winning with a stack of chips when they came in and took us,'' he said ruefully.