It was the sixth time that LaGrange attorney Darin Schrock and his wife, Jolene, had traveled to Ethiopia. The first three times had been to adopt their three children.
They, along with other friends, had also established a non-profit organization, “Awake and Alive,” that sponsors a school in the African nation and are actively involved in running the program.
This sixth trip was a combination as they took their oldest daughter, who is now 5, with them to visit the country she was born in as well as visit the school. The family was there for about a week and left Sunday evening on an Ethiopian Air flight that was headed for Rome, Italy, before connecting to flights that would bring them home.
“That’s when all heck broke loose,” Schrock said.
The airliner was hijacked partway during the flight by the Ethiopian co-pilot.
Being such a late flight, Schrock had fallen asleep, only to be awakened around 2 a.m. to find the oxygen masks had deployed and hearing yelling over the plane’s PA system. “The plane was also making dips and noises you don’t usually hear,” Schrock said Thursday morning back in LaGrange.
The plane did level out as Schrock and his wife donned their oxygen masks and got their daughter’s mask in place. “At that point, it looked like a mechanical problem. We didn’t hear anything from the cockpit,” Schrock said.
And at first, the airline staff told passengers that they were still heading for Rome.
With the family sitting in the fourth row, they had a good view of what was actually happening. Jolene Schrock had seen the crew attempt to get into the cockpit. It was later determined that the co-pilot had locked the pilot out of the cockpit and was taking the plane to Geneva, Switzerland, in an attempt to defect to the European country.
“When we got close to our landing time, they told us they would be landing an hour late,” Schrock said. This made sense if the plane had been experiencing a mechanical issue. “But the screens were off and we couldn’t tell where we were.”
The first sign that they weren’t heading for Rome came when the friends traveling with the Schrocks looked out and saw the Alps below. The plane then circled for 30 to 40 minutes, Schrock said, before they were told that they would finally land.
It was at that time that the co-pilot was reportedly negotiating with the Swiss government.
Once on the ground, “the plane came to an abrupt stop,” Schrock recalled. “We didn’t taxi off the runway. And then we saw the sign that said ‘Welcome to Geneva.’”
Fire trucks pulled up, but stopped short of the plane. “Within 10 minutes, they informed us that the plane had been hijacked and that they were waiting for the Swiss police,” Schrock stated. “They were trying to keep everyone calm. They didn’t know what he [the co-pilot] was going to do.”
The co-pilot would leave the plane via an emergency exit in the cockpit, and was taken into custody by the police.
Still, the authorities didn’t know if anyone else was involved. Swiss officers boarded the plane in full gear and automatic weapons. “They worked on getting into the cockpit,” Schrock said. Passengers were then taken off one by one, keeping their hands up and then searched multiple times before they were bused to the terminal.
“The Swiss were great. Very organized and professional,” Schrock said.
Within minutes, the American consulate was at the terminal to see if any Americans were on the flight. There were 11 in all.
Since Schrock was so close to the front, he was one of a few passengers taken into Geneva to be questioned by authorities. He rejoined his family three hours later back at the airport, where his wife and their friend had been working to rebook flights and make arrangements to stay in Geneva until the next day when they could fly out.
Finally, on Tuesday at 5 p.m., they arrived back in Chicago, Ill. And into immediate media attention.
Perhaps knowing that it all worked out makes the experience easier to discuss now. “It was scary. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Schrock said. It was tough thinking that they were so close to the time they would see each other or talk.
Their daughter “was a champ,” Schrock said. “She played video games and even slept.” According to Schrock, she was a little scared when the police boarded the plane in full gear.
The family intends to continue going back to Ethiopia. “It’s part of our lives,” Schrock said. “We’re dedicated to those kids and this just reaffirms our resolve to help them.”
They will, however, fly with a different airline, he added.