INTERVIEW: Flight attendant who ushered passengers to safety during hijacking speaks out

Passant Darwish , Wednesday 30 Mar 2016

Ahram Online speaks with the EgyptAir flight 181 attendant who ushered passengers calmly under the threat of a hijacker, with a smile and wave goodbye

EgyptAir hijack
Snapshot of EgyptAir flight attendant Nehal Barkouky seen ushering passengers to safety before returning back to hijacked plane on Tuesday, 29 March, 2016.

News channels worldwide aired on Tuesday morning video footage of a flight attendant calmly ushering passengers off an EgyptAir plane.

The scene looked normal, the passengers orderly, all would have seemed business-as-usual except for the caption under the footage that read “Egyptian plane hijacked and diverted to Cyprus.”

Flight attendant Nehal Barkouky looked collected, tucking a stray hair or two behind her ear, embracing one of the passengers briefly and even waving to them goodbye as they evacuated the hijacked plane, the hijacker still inside with what he claimed was an explosive belt around his waist.

“You are acting and you have to act well. In this situation, you must act better than [professional] actors because it is real life, they have to see you controlled, with your makeup on and smiling,” Barkouky told Ahram Online.

The footage then shows Barkouky pausing for a brief moment with her back to the departing passengers before stepping back onto the plane.

“I was stepping into the unknown, to a man who was threatening [us] with an explosive belt. I couldn’t have left with the passengers, my job was not done.”

The ordeal started 15 minutes after take-off from Egypt’s Alexandria, when the hijacker, later identified as 58-year-old Egyptian national Seif El-Din Mustafa, forced the pilot of flight 181 to divert the Cairo-bound plane to Cyprus.

Barkouky said that Mustafa, sitting at the back of the plane, revealed himself to the crew and asked that a note be sent to pilot saying “the plane has been hijacked, either land in Greece, Turkey or Cyprus. If the pilot chooses to continue on his path to Cairo, [the plane’s passengers] are gone.”

She said that she could not determine whether the explosive belt was real, “but as a professional, we were trained not to take a chance on risking the life of even one passenger aboard the plane,” thus they treated it as a genuine threat.

The hijacker, according to Barkouky, demanded the passports of all 55 passengers be collected to determine their nationalities and separate the foreigners as he wanted to take the foreigners only as hostages and release the Egyptians.

Once the plane landed in Cyprus’ Larnaca Airport, the crew managed to negotiate with Mustafa to let the passengers leave until only three non-Egyptian passengers and four crew members remained. 

The hijacker said after they landed that he wanted to “free [a number of] female Egyptian prisoners,” the flight attendant stated.

As for reports that Mustafa wanted to speak to his former wife, a Cypriot citizen, Barkouky said “I did not hear that, I don’t know where people got that from, some people like to spice things up.”

After almost seven-hours of landing, Mustafa surrendered himself to Cypriot authorities.

Authorities said that upon examination, the explosive belt was determined to be fake.

All of the passengers emerged uninjured.

Mustafa was brought before a Cypriot judge Wednesday morning, where he said that his desire to see his children, who are in the custody of his ex-wife, drove him to hijack the plane.

The court ordered he be held in detention for eight days.

Cypriot police said he faces charges including hijacking, illegal possession of explosives, kidnapping and threats to commit violence.

Egyptian prosecution said they are in talks with their Cypriot counterparts to extradite him.

The passengers and crew of flight 181 flew back to Cairo late Tuesday on the same plane.

Barkouky resumed her original plans; “checking on my four-year-old daughter and teenage son, and getting lots of sleep.”

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