Terror as hijacker threatens skyscraper crash

A man stole a small plane at gunpoint then threatened to crash it into the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, sparking panic in the German financial capital.

He landed safely after about two hours and was arrested, police said.

The man told a television station during the drama that he meant to call attention to Judith Resnik, a US astronaut killed in the 1986 post-launch explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Military jets scrambled after the stolen two-seat motorised glider began circling slowly above the skyscrapers of Frankfurt’s banking district, yesterday.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of thousands of people from the main railway station, two opera houses and several skyscrapers – the latter mostly empty on a Sunday afternoon at the end of the Christmas season.

Police identified the man as a 31-year-old German from Darmstadt, a city 25 miles south of Frankfurt. But television and radio stations named him as Franz-Stephan Strambach, a student.

“I want to make my great idol Judith Resnik famous with this,” he said in a call from the plane to news channel n-tv. “She deserves more attention, she was the first Jewish astronaut, and maybe that’s why she isn’t really considered.”

In radio contact with air traffic controllers, officials said the man threatened to crash into the ECB headquarters unless he was allowed the TV interview as well as a call to Resnik’s family in Baltimore, Maryland.

Police sent up a helicopter to try to force the plane away from the city, while two Phantom jets scrambled by the German air force also roared back and forth across the sky.

ECB spokeswoman Regina Schueller said about 10 staff were evacuated from their offices. The bank’s president Wim Duisenberg was not in the building.

However, the man told n-tv he didn’t want to harm anyone, and at 5.11pm 4.11pm Irish time, he put the plane down at Frankfurt’s international airport, where flights were halted until he was back on the ground.

The plane was stolen yesterday afternoon from an airfield at Babenhausen, just to the south east of Frankfurt. The man threatened the pilot with a gun, then took the controls and took off. Police said it was still unclear if the gun was real and loaded at the time.

A spokesman for the Babenhausen flying club said the plane was a single-engine Austrian-made Super Dimona motorglider and belonged to the club. With the engine switched off, the plane can be used as a glider.

The spokesman said the man was not a member and had asked about taking a short flight with a motorglider before stealing the plane.

Resnik was among the seven astronauts killed when the shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after take off on January 28, 1986, from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Strambach’s name appears as the webmaster of an internet site devoted to Resnik, with links documenting her career, death and efforts to remember her, including the position in the night sky of an asteroid carrying her name.

Axel Raab, a spokesman for German air traffic control, said police psychologists had helped persuade him to land by promising him contact with the Resnik family.

“Right from the beginning, even the air traffic controllers had tried to reassure him,” Raab said on German state television last night. “In the end, they were able to get him to land."

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