A then 27-year-old surviving hostage of the Pan Am Flight hijacking discovered years later why the terrorists who held him at gunpoint decided to spare his life.
On 5 September, 1986, Mike Thexton boarded a plane in Karachi, Pakistan after spending the summer hiking with his girlfriend in the Himalayas to honour his late brother, Pete.
Pete sadly died three years earlier on Broad Peak, the 12th-highest mountain in the world which is located in the Karakoram range of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan and Xinjiang, China.
Speaking in the upcoming Sky documentary, Hijacked: Flight 73, he described the feeling of elation as he boarded the flight: “I took out a book and thought: ‘This is fantastic'."
However, Palestinian terrorists who acted for Abu Nidal, then one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organisations, disguised themselves as security officers and jumped the stationary aircraft, taking the passengers onboard hostage as a gun was pointed directly at Thexton.
He was then told to kneel in a doorway with the gun pointed at his head.
“By then, I was never in doubt they would shoot me," he recalled of the terrifying moment. "I thought: ‘Somebody is going to die today, and it’s going to be me'."
He made a last attempt to appeal to his captor, begging: "Please, please don’t hurt me. My brother has died in the mountains, my parents have no one else."
Thexton added: "He just waved his hand as if to say, I haven’t got time for that.”
Tragically, 21 people died during the stationary hijacking and more than 100 were injured after 10 hours of kidnapping as the four captors 'opened fire, everywhere, aimlessly'.
Thexton recalled: "I heard a hand grenade, a Kalashnikov behind me and gunfire from the front. Then it went quiet. I lifted my head to see the shape of a door [a passenger had opened it] against the night sky.
“I jumped off the port wing. I was underweight and wearing my mountaineering boots. I escaped with a scratch on my elbow.”
However, a recent phone conversation between Thexton and the terrorist ringleader, Zaid Hassan Abd Latif Safarini, revealed the real reason why he survived the 12-hour ordeal - and it wasn't just dumb luck.
Safarini, who is currently serving a 160-year sentence in the US, told Thexton that he still remembers his face and what he said to him on board the Pan-am Boeing 747.
“You mentioned to me that your brother is killed. I say, ‘OK man, just sit aside’. It touched my heart, actually,” he said during his conversation to Thexton.
Thexton admitted that Safarini’s reasoning for keeping him alive wasn't what he was expecting.
“I was astonished. The call ended and I just stared at the phone. In all the years, having had half a dozen theories about why they didn’t kill me, I never imagined that," he admitted.
“Peter died, but I didn’t, because of him."
Following the plane hijacking, Safarini and the other terrorists were sentenced to death in Pakistan.
Safarini was eventually released from prison, only to be re-captured by the FBI in 2001 and taken into US custody before he pleaded guilty to 95 counts - which included murder - in 2003.
For more on Thexton’s survival and recounts from other passengers, you can watch the Sky documentary Hijacked: Flight 73 on 29 April, 2023.Featured Image Credit: Mike Thexton / Twitter/@aircrashmayday