Former LIers recall 1968 hijacking to Cuba

Robert Oppenheim, 52, was a passenger on the Robert Oppenheim, 52, was a passenger on the hijacked Pan American Flight 281 in 1968. (Undated) Photo Credit: Handout

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Michael Oppenheim was 15 in 1968, when, on a trip to Puerto Rico with his family, his plane took an unexpected detour to Cuba.

One of the armed men who commandeered that Pan American flight was arrested Sunday after arriving on a flight from Cuba to Kennedy Airport, 41 years after the hijacking, federal authorities said.

Longtime fugitive Luis Armando Pena Soltren "terrorized dozens of passengers when he and his cohorts wielded pistols and knives to hijack Pan American flight 281" on Nov. 24, 1968, federal prosecutor Preet Bharara said in a statement.

Oppenheim, 56, of Piermont in Rockland County, said Sunday he had a different recollection of his brief journey to communist Cuba.

"It was fantastic," he said.

With his parents and two younger brothers, Paul and Robert, Oppenheim was sitting near the front of the plane when the pilot made an announcement: "This plane is being hijacked. We're going to Havana."

A hijacker sat down next to Oppenheim's father, Henry, of Lake Success, who spoke some Spanish. The two chatted, and the hijacker gave Henry Oppenheim a bullet as a souvenir.

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In its coverage of the hijacking, Newsday interviewed two Long Island families who had been on the flight. A framed copy of the story, with a photo of Emanuel and Esther Kessler, of Oceanside, phoning relatives to say they had returned safely to Miami, hung for many years in the family's home, said Glenn Kessler, 60, of Northborough, Mass.

He was 19, and a student at American University in Washington, D.C., when he learned that his parents' plane had been hijacked. He drove straight home.

But his parents, now deceased, took the adventure in stride, he said. After a State Department plane ferried them from Guantanamo to Miami, they continued on to their vacation in Puerto Rico.

Soltren, now 66, was arrested at Kennedy Airport - the same place where Flight 281 departed four decades ago. He is expected to be arraigned Tuesday in Manhattan on a 1968 indictment.

A spokeswoman for federal prosecutors refused to comment on why Soltren was traveling to the United States.

The other hijackers, Jose Rafael Rios Cruz and Miguel Castro, were arrested in the mid-1970s and pleaded guilty to their roles in the takeover, a spokeswoman for the U.S. district attorney said.

The hijackers were accompanied by a woman and a baby. Weapons and ammunition had been sneaked onto the flight in a diaper bag, according to a criminal complaint.

Reached by phone Sunday, Michael Oppenheim's brother, Robert, who was 11 in 1968, remarked on the hospitality of their Cuban hosts.

"They gave us a warm meal," said Oppenheim, who is now 52 and lives in Oak Harbor, Wash.

Michael Oppenheim said the Cubans also offered them cigars, but the Americans could not accept.

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With AP

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