Friends in high places
The headlines from spring 1970 captured the drama of a Boston hijacking that has been long forgotten. Forgotten, that is, except by those fortunate enough to have survived it, like Peggy McLoughlin.
A few weeks ago, McLoughlin sat down and wrote a letter to Captain Robert Wilbur Jr., the pilot who successfully got the plane down on the ground at Logan Airport.
"I thanked him for my life and my children's lives," she said yesterday.
She is a survivor of a hijacking that left one pilot dead, but narrowly skirted even greater tragedy. In 39 years, she has never spoken to another passenger or crew member, she said. But in the aftermath of the miracle landing on the Hudson River this winter, her own miracle came rushing back to her.
McLoughlin was a 19-year-old Boston College student when she boarded the 7:30 p.m. Eastern Airlines shuttle from Newark to Boston on St. Patrick's Day, 1970. There were 68 passengers and five crew members aboard.
At the time, airline passengers often paid for their tickets after boarding a flight. Shortly after takeoff, one passenger, John J. Divivo, told a flight attendant that he didn't have any money. He asked to speak to the pilot, and pulled out a .38 caliber revolver.
Divivo walked in and attempted to take over the flight. The pilots expected him to demand to be taken to Cuba. "That was the destination of choice," Wilbur said yesterday. Instead, the man said he didn't have anywhere he wanted to go. He ordered the pilots to fly overseas until they ran out of fuel, instructions they ignored.
Wilbur's back was turned when Divivo and the copilot, James Hartley Jr., began to fight over the gun. Hartley was wounded, but managed to wrestle the gun away and shoot Divivo. The would-be hijacker briefly lost consciousness. When he came to, Wilbur knocked him unconscious with the pistol.
Hartley was not so fortunate. He died in the cabin, wounded in the battle with Devivo.
"I don't think about the flight that often," Wilbur said this week from his retirement home in Florida. "But when I do think about it, I think about Jim Hartley. He was absolutely a hero."
The passengers were only dimly aware of the battle in the cabin, McLoughlin said. They heard commotion, but didn't understand they were in the midst of an attempted hijacking until shots rang out.
There was one other clue. They became aware that the flight had veered off course when they found themselves flying over the Back Bay. After a precipitous plunge, Wilbur safely landed the plane at Logan, and quickly taxied.
"I remember thinking we were going to land in the harbor," McLoughlin said. "In my innocent, 19-year-old way, I took my boots off." She thought that would help in case she had to swim to safety.
Things were so much more relaxed then. McLoughlin recalls an FBI agent dropping by her dorm a couple of weeks after the hijacking. But there was no counseling or psychological follow-up. "Before those days of closure and stress, things happened and you just dealt with it," she said. "It was so shocking. It was one of those experiences where you don't have any other experiences to draw on."
Devivo was arrested when the plane landed. He was indicted, but never came to trial. On Oct. 31, 1970, he hanged himself in his cell at the Suffolk County Jail.
Wilbur said he was surprised to be contacted, out of the blue, by one of the passengers from the most dramatic flight of his career.
Long retired, he said he barely remembered it - then exhibited perfect recall of such details as which runway he landed on. He modestly insists he simply did his job.
McLoughlin became a librarian and a yoga instructor. But the memory of that day has not left her. It was just long suppressed.
"I've just realized how astonishing this is," she said.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.