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This was a story unlike any they had ever covered: three planes sitting in the middle of the Jordanian desert, armed militants, hundreds of hostages. The images that journalists covering the September 1970 hijackings transmitted helped introduce an incredulous world to the new age of global terrorism.
Gerald Seymour, a correspondent for British broadcaster ITN, was at the Intercontinental Hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman on the afternoon of Sunday, September 6, 1970, when word of the multiple hijackings first came in. He and his colleagues had never heard of skyjackings on such a scale, and his shock grew when at dusk he learned that the hijacked planes were heading to Jordan. The next morning Seymour and three television crews set out to find what the hijackers had dubbed "Revolution Airport," where the planes had landed. They had trouble at first but were directed to the spot by an Italian engineer they found roaring across the desert in a jeep. When he came over the rim of a hill and saw the planes, Seymour's first impression was that they looked like children's toys.
In addition to getting a number of imprisoned comrades freed, the members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine wanted to use the hijackings to let the world know about the Palestinian struggle. So on the afternoon of September 7, they agreed to hold a press conference for the 60 members of the media who had made their way to Revolution Airport. Representative groups of passengers and crew were brought out from the planes and made to sit in the sand 20 feet from the media. First photographers and cameramen took their pictures, and then reporters were allowed to ask questions. Various P.F.L.P. guerrillas, including Bassam Abu-Sharif, made statements through a megaphone and fielded inquiries about conditions on board the airplanes. When evening approached, the reporters and television crews headed back to Amman to file the stories that would soon be broadcast around the world. Seymour, for one, felt ashamed that he was able to return to air-conditioned hotel comfort while the hostages stayed on planes in unsanitary and deteriorating conditions.
For the next several days, news from the Jordanian desert transfixed the world, dominating broadcasts and political debate. New waves of reporters, including David Phillips, who would go on to co-author a book about the hijackings, arrived to see what would happen at the deadline set by the P.F.L.P. for meeting their demands. Flying over Revolution Airport at 20,000 feet on the morning of Saturday, September 12, Phillips thought "the skyjacked planes looked like three dots on a domino." Later that day, PFLP guerrillas blew up the three aircraft that had now been emptied of all hostages. Sharif made sure a news photographer and cameraman were on hand to record the events; journalists 40 miles away at the Intercontinental Hotel could see smoke trails from the explosions. And in a denouement that showed the importance of media images in the coming age of global terror, at one o'clock the next morning, reporters at the Nicosia Airport in Cyprus surrounded a chartered jet that had just arrived from Amman, anxious to hear firsthand accounts from the freed hostages. "Tell me," a reporter asked, "how many days were you in the desert?" Only one, as it turned out; the two passengers on board were not freed hostages but television producers. Their only cargo was film of the explosions that would soon be relayed around the world.