Convicted hijacker shares story, details 1972 threat to Oak Ridge

11:39 PM, May 25, 2011   |    comments
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Video: Interview with Louis Moore

Video: Interview with Harold Jonson

Video: NBC Report on hijacking from 1972

Video: Interview with James Alexander

  • Louis Moore describes life after the 1972 hijacking of a Southern Airways flight.
  • Co-pilot Harold Johnson describes some of the documentation he has regarding the 1972 hijacking.
  • James Alexander, a former spokesman for the government facilities in Oak Ridge explains the community's reaction to news an airplane could crash into a nuclear facility.
  • Dozens of African Americans gathered outside the Tennessee Theater in 1966 as part of a peaceful protest pushing for equality.
  • A 1972 NBC Nightly News report details the hijacking.

It's 1972 and for a few hours the nation's attention turns to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and a hijacked airplane that's hovered around North America for nearly 30 hours.

Three men, including Knoxville native Louis Moore hijacked a Southern Airways DC-9 in Alabama and at one point threatened to crash it into a nuclear facility at Oak Ridge if their demands weren't met.

However, Moore said the reports from that day aren't the whole story.

"There's another side of me, it's not something I just jumped off and did," Moore said.

He said in order to understand why he did what he did, you've got to go back to the 1960's and downtown Knoxville.  Moore was about 20 years old at the and part of a crowd of African Americans pushing to desegregate the Tennessee Theater.

A number of men in that crowd were non-violent but arrested nonetheless.  Moore said he was one of them.

Shortly after that incident he moved to Detroit for a factory job.  He said his work for racial equality continued and included a brief period of time he associated with the Black Panthers, but that didn't last.

"That wasn't my feelings realistically because, there is good and bad in all.  There is good and bad in all, I have closer white friends as I do black," he said.

While there, his family ran into problems with a special police unit that has since disbanded.  The police fell because of heavy criticism from the community and corruption.

Moore says STRESS, that special police group, threatened him and threatened the lives of his children and wife.  He reported the problems and sought money from the City of Detroit.

NBC News reported the city offered Moore $25, an amount that frustrated the Knoxville native.

"A man can take so much, then there is frustration," Moore said.

Moore said the incident set him, his half brother, and a friend looking for a way to get the City of Detroit and the nation's attention.

"We decided to take it to another level," he said.

That's where Harold Johnson, a pilot now living almost 500 away and co-pilot of Southern Airways 49 comes in.

"Suddenly the door of the cockpit burst open, in came a flight attendant.  This black guy had his arm around her neck and a gun to her head and said 'we're taking over the airplane'," Johnson said.

Moore and the two others hijacked the plane shortly after takeoff over Alabama.

They wanted $10 million from The Motor City to keep the roughly three dozen passengers on board safe.

"If they didn't have the money we were going to crash the airplane into the nuclear reactor at Knoxville," Johnson said.

"I thought, 'this has got to be a joke.  This is too extreme.  This sounds like a TV drama'," James Alexander, a retired spokesman for the government's Oak Ridge facilities said.

With the DC-9 flying above Oak Ridge, the then, Atomic Energy Commission facility was scurrying to get safety measures ready.

"Not much we can do to prevent it.  They've got the guns, we don't," Johnson said.

As Oak Ridge kept an eye on the sky, many feared the worst.

"As I understand it, there were something like 10,000 calls that came into, not just the public information office but to Oak Ridge that came in from the public," Alexander said.

Within several hours, Union Carbide scientists determined a crash would destroy the high flux nuclear reactor's building but likely wouldn't cause a significant radioactive event.  The reactor itself is housed in a concrete pool underground.

Johnson said the facility breathed a sigh of relief but remained on-guard as the plane was still in the air traveling toward Chattanooga.

There, the hijacking trio picked up several million in cash and headed for Cuba.

"It was a matter of us fighting the government, the United States Constitution tells us we have a right to revolt and rebel," Moore said.

Fidel Castro didn't want anything to do with the hijackers and refused a meeting with them.  Eventually, the airplane partially refueled and landed in Orlando.

"The FBI director ordered the tires on the airplane shot out," Johnson said.

Johnson says the hijackers likely believed he was somehow allowed the FBI to shoot the tires from the airplane.  They then pulled a gun on him and demanded he stand up.

"I could visualize my brains being blown out, being scattered all over the seat," Johnson said.  "Just momentarily, I thought of my dad, my daughter, my wife.  That's all the time I had to think."

Johnson dove to the floor as the gun fired and was wounded in the shoulder.  Moore wasn't the trigger man but says the whole shooting portion of the hijacking was an accident and not part of the plan.

"I hate that there were innocent people involved," Moore said.

"I didn't expect them to shoot us, I don't think they would have shot me but they were just so--- shocked, surprised when the FBI shot the tires out," Johnson said.  "They just went into a rage at that point."

With blown tires and a one-armed co-pilot, the plane once again was able to take off, again heading south.

"The hijackers then demanded to talk by radio to President Nixon at Key Biscayne, Florida.  When they failed, they went back to Havana and gave themselves up."

Cuban authorities rushed Johnson to a hospital.  The co-pilot says the hijackers grabbed their money off the plane and were greeted by Cuban military officials.

The Walnut Ridge, Arkansas native said he called his wife from the hospital later that day and hadn't realized he made headlines, his wife following their nearly 30 hour journey that included stops in Cleveland, Toronto, and Lexington.

"I said 'you know we'd been hijacked.  I didn't know what you knew about it'.  She said, "the whole world knows about it!'" Johnson said.

Moore served 8 years in Cuban detention facilities for his role in the hijacking.  After that time, he returned to the United States and was tried in federal court for air piracy where plead guilty.

He was sentenced to another 7 years in United States' prisons.

Today, back in Knoxville, he says he's learned a thing or two as he continues pushing for his form of justice.

"I'm trying to take a different approach, that's the reason I march with my babies," Moore said.

Currently fighting a court battle against a local auto repair shop, he's turned to raising signs of protest instead of the tools he would once attempt to use.

A father of 3, Moore says he is working on a book detailing his side of that 1972 flight.

"You know, you try to do things right," Moore said.  "I don't deny what I did.  But I feel I owe the people, even the passengers, I do owe them an explanation."

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