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Friday, August 20, 2010

Terrorism at San Francisco Airport: a History

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2010 at 8:59 AM

click to enlarge Yes, there has been lethal airport terrorism in San Francisco -- back when this ad wasn't nostalgic
  • Yes, there has been lethal airport terrorism in San Francisco -- back when this ad wasn't nostalgic
Thursday's all-day hijack threat at San Francisco Airport, if nothing else, illustrated how little it takes to disrupt the nation's transportation system. You don't need guns. You don't need bombs. You just need a rambling, largely incoherent phone call to the Alameda Hampton Inn noting, among other things, you're going to hijack Flight 24 to JFK.

Yesterday's call has been labeled a hoax -- and the San Francisco Police Department kindly issued a press release noting that making bogus calls that cause the local, state, and federal authorities to tie up air traffic, ground flights, and run passengers through the wringer is a crime. But there has actually been a bit of terrorism at SFO in recent memory. In fact, the last terrorist incident recorded in this city took place at the airport.

Of course, that all depends on what your definition of the word "incident" is. According to the Global Terror Database, the last terror attack carried out in the Bay Area was an SFO bombing on July 26, 1997. But 7/26 is not a candidate for a rallying cry of "never forget." The incident was quickly defused -- no pun intended -- when "a device that appeared to be a pipe bomb with protruding wires was found wrapped in a T-shirt and connected by yarn" to a pay phone at SFO.

The device was uncovered by a bomb-sniffing dog near the United Airlines ticketing counter. While airline personnel and passengers were sent elsewhere, authorities discovered the device "contained all the components of an explosive (power source, timing device, etc.) except for explosive material." Black powder had been sprinkled on the shirt, however, so the dogs sniffed it out.

Not exactly a candidate for the Terrorism Hall of Fame.

click to enlarge Pacific Southwest Airlines was famous for its happy planes -- and hijacking problems at SFO
  • Pacific Southwest Airlines was famous for its happy planes -- and hijacking problems at SFO
Terrorism in its modern iteration has not been a San Francisco problem -- knock on wood. Back in the 1960s and '70s, however, the city was crawling with revolutionary groups and their even more revolutionary splinter groups -- all of whom shot it out with each other and/or Inspector Harry Callahan every other week, it would seem.

To find actual violent terrorism at SFO, you'd have to go back to 1972. A Pacific Southwest Airlines flight from the city to Los Angeles was hijacked by shotgun-wielding men on Jan. 7. After leaving the passengers at LAX, the plane flew to Cuba via Tampa, and all was well.

Things did not go so smoothly on July 5. Pacific Southwest -- again -- was hit by would-be hijackers. Shortly before a flight from Sacramento touched down at SFO, Michael Azmanoff and Dimitr Alexiev brandished firearms and demanded $800,000 and a flight to Siberia. After a tense standoff and negotiations, undercover FBI agents -- including one disguised as a pilot -- infiltrated the plane and a gun battle ensued. Both of the hijackers were shot dead and Azmanoff killed a passenger. Of note, San Francisco-born actor Victor Sen Yung -- best known as Hop Sing on Bonanza -- survived a bullet through his back.

Azmanoff and Alexiev, incidentally, never thought to call the Hampton Inn.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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