Australia's first hijacking: Man took KB beer can bomb on Pan Am jet

Story of Australia’s first jumbo jet hijacking at Sydney Airport is told for the first time by a cop who stopped hundreds from dying… as the Malaysia Airlines MH122 incident brings back chilling memories: ‘Stay back or I will kill her’

  • Domenico Speranza carried bombs onto Pan Am jet at Sydney Airport
  • Speranza, 34, took nurse Suzanne Chisholm, 22, hostage at knifepoint
  • NSW police stormed the aircraft and shot dead Speranza in the aisle 

The ‘bomb threat’ at Sydney Airport that left 194 passengers stranded on a flight for three hours last week caused chaos for thousands of travellers but was resolved with no physical harm to anyone.

For a small band of old NSW detectives, that incident brought back memories of a far more sinister and potentially catastrophic incident at the same transport hub more than 40 years earlier.

There was no bomb on Malaysia Airlines flight MH122 on August 14, but an improvised explosive device the long-retired cops encountered on April 4, 1979 could have killed hundreds and destroyed the international terminal.

The first attempted hijacking of a jumbo jet in Australia occurred at Sydney Airport that Wednesday morning and ended with Italian immigrant Domenico Speranza being shot dead down the aisle of a Boeing 747.

The first attempted hijacking of a jumbo jet in Australia occurred at Sydney Airport on April 4, 1979 and ended with Italian immigrant Domenico Speranza being shot dead in the aisle of a Pan Am airliner (above)

Speranza, a carpenter who had been in Australia for eight years, took New Zealand-born nurse Suzanne Chisholm hostage at knifepoint before threatening to detonate a home-made bomb packed into a KB beer can on a Pan Am airliner.

After kidnapping Chisholm, 34-year-old Speranza demanded the Clipper Mayflower jet be flown to Rome so he could meet the Pope, before continuing on to Russia.

After a four-hour stand-off a senior constable from the NSW Police Force’s Special Weapons and Operations Squad shot Speranza in the torso, then the head.

The nine SWOS-trained detectives who took part in breaching the plane that day knew Spreanza had a bomb that would have killed them all if it exploded. 

Now, the detective who fired the fatal shots has explained how he and his colleagues ended the operation, as detailed in a brief of evidence put before the coroner.

Daily Mail Australia is identifying that detective as ‘Officer 3’ and naming only those police involved in taking down Speranza who have since died. 

Domenico Speranza took nurse Suzanne Chisholm hostage at knifepoint before threatening to detonate a home-made bomb packed in a KB beer can on a Pan Am jet. The bomb was recreated (above) and detonated to show it could have destroyed the airliner

Pan Am flight PA815 touched down at Sydney Airport at 11.12am after flying from Los Angeles via Auckland and parked at Gate 7 where 256 passengers and 18 crew disembarked.

The plane was still carrying 13,449 litres of aviation gas and its empty tanks were filled with highly flammable vapour. The centre fuel tank was located directly behind and below the position Speranza would take up with his bomb – seat 7F in first class.

Chisholm, who had been working in Canberra, was going home to attend her brother’s wedding and was due to celebrate her 23rd birthday three days later. 

Shortly before 11.30am, Chisholm was waiting in the departure lounge to board her 3pm Qantas flight, QF58, to Christchurch when she was grabbed from behind.

Speranza held a knife with a 15cm blade to Chisholm’s throat and pushed her through the Customs barrier. When Commonwealth police approached Speranza he said, ‘Stay back or I will kill her’.

Police withdrew and Speranza forced Chisholm onto the jet where she realised she was bleeding from a neck wound, and he ordered cleaning and maintenance staff off the aircraft.

A short time afterwards Chief Inspector John Burrows of the Commonwealth police boarded the jet and spoke to Speranza, who demanded he be flown to Singapore, Rome and Moscow.

Suzanne Chisholm was going home to attend her brother's wedding when she was taken hostage by Speranza in the departure lounge. She is pictured at the Coroner's Court

Burrows told Speranza he was getting a doctor to treat Chisholm’s wound and left the aircraft. While he was gone, Speranza bragged to Chisholm this was the first time an airliner had been hijacked in Australia and it would be all over the news.

‘Have you ever been to Singapore or Rome?’ Speranza asked Chisholm. When she said no, he told her: ‘I will take you to meet the Pope’. 

After Burrows returned to the plane an agitated Speranza continued to hold the knife near Chisholm’s chest and said he no longer wished to live in Australia.

Italian-born hijacker Domenico Speranza (above) was shot dead by a SWOS officer

Unable to resolve the situation, Burrows grabbed Speranza’s arm and called out to Chisholm to run. Burrows and Speranza fought and at 1.17pm Chisholm escaped through the airbridge.

Chisholm told police Speranza had warned her he had a bomb that would blow up 100 people. She saw he was carrying a KB beer can with a 15cm fuse protruding from the opening.

Back in the Pan Am jet, Speranza produced the beer can and held a lit match near the fuse, telling Burrows: ‘This is a bomb. Get off the aircraft or I’ll blow everything up.’

The next officer through the doorway was Detective Sergeant Nelson Chad, an FBI- trained negotiator from the SWOS. Chad saw the KB bomb and another device with a fuse in a smaller ‘cartridge-like’ container.

‘I am finished with talking,’ Speranza told Chad. ‘I want you to take this plane off to Rome. I want to see the Pope and then I want to go to Russia to live. Australia is no good anymore.

‘I want this plane to leave by 3.45 or I will blow us all up.’ 

While Chad attempted to calm the hijacker, Speranza held a lit match 5cm from the KB bomb’s wick and screamed out, ‘Stop!’. After 20 minutes, negotiations broke down and Chad left the aircraft.

After kidnapping Chisholm, 34-year-old Speranza year-old demanded the 'Clipper Mayflower' jet be flown to Rome so he could meet the Pope before continuing on to Russia

Another SWOS member, the Italian-speaking Detective Senior Constable Aldo Lorenzutta was then called to the scene to talk to Speranza in his native tongue.

As police waited for Lorenzutta to arrive two detectives went to Speranza’s home at Fairfield in Sydney’s west and made several alarming discoveries. 

In Speranza’s bedroom they located 200 or more 12 gauge shotgun shells that had been emptied of lead shot and gunpowder. Two empty KB cans were found in the backyard.

Now knowing the likely composition of the main bomb, experts from the police ballistics section and NSW Mines Department concluded its detonation could destroy not only the jet but at least part of the international terminal.

Police considered options to overpower Speranza including the use of mace, fire extinguishers, removing oxygen from the plane and a narcotic dart. 

Lorenzutta arrived at the airport about 1.30pm and spoke to Speranza for 45 to 55 minutes through the jet’s doorway. Speranza was holding the KB can and a box of matches in his left hand, with a single match in his right.

Behind Lorenzutta were seven SWOS members including Detective Sergeant Don Worsley as well as Chief Inspector Don Thomas from the Commonwealth police who had previously been a member of the squad. 

‘If you love your children, don’t come near me or I will blow this plane up,’ Speranza told Lorenzutta. ‘Me, you and everybody else.’

The hijacker told Lorenzutta he wanted some bread to eat and threw a crumpled $2 note down the aisle. About 2.40pm Speranza again said if all his demands were not met by 3.45pm he would ignite the bomb.

After Lorenzutta left the plane a new plan was formed: to blast Speranza with a burst from a fire hose. The water would subdue the bombmaker and stop him lighting the fuse without anyone getting hurt.

Chad tested the hose in a nearby toilet and the pressure was deemed up to the task. Lorenzutta told Speranza the bread was on its way and the seven other SWOS members, along with Thomas, were assembled ahead of an assault.

Chad would go in with the hose flanked by Officer 3 and another breaching party member, with two others in close support and three more behind. Each man was armed only with a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver.

‘We had no protective equipment at all,’ said Officer 3. ‘The simple reality is if he had detonated the bomb we would have been vapourised.’

About 3.35pm Lorenzutta received two loaves of bread and returned to the aircraft. He threw one loaf onto the seat in front of Speranza and the second into the aisle.

Pan Am flight PA815 (above) touched down at Sydney Airport at 11.12am after flying from Los Angeles via Auckland and parked at Gate 7 where all 256 passengers and 18 crew disembarked

Speranza ordered Lorenzutta off the plane and demanded an airline crew be immediately brought on board to fly him out of the country. Lorenzutta took a last glance at Speranza and saw he was holding the KB bomb and box of matches.

Believing this was the last chance to disarm the hijacker and with less than ten minutes before Speranza’s deadline expired, Lorenzutta called out, ‘Now’.

Chad stormed through the doorway with the fire hose at 3.38pm and hit Speranza in the face with a stream of water. Speranza had been sitting down and turned away to dodge the spray, yelling out, ‘I kill you’.

As Speranza struck a match to ignite the bomb Officer 3 fired a shot which passed through the hijacker’s left arm and entered his abdomen. When Speranza tried again to light the device Officer 3 shot him in the forehead.

‘He was trying to ignite the frigging thing,’ Officer 3 said. ‘I fired two shots and that was the end of that.’

Despite having been shot twice, Speranza tried to struggle with police and attempted to remove a packet from his top pocket. Police feared that may have been another bomb but it turned out to be a box of tablets.

Suzanne Chisholm drew this sketch of the bomb Domenico Speranza made with a KB beer can and the layout of where she was seated with Speranza in the first-class section of the  jet

The KB bomb was made safe, along with the smaller device, and Speranza was taken to Prince Henry Hospital. He underwent surgery and was pronounced dead at 9.20pm, about ten hours after he had started the siege by taking Chisolm hostage.

That night detectives interviewed Speranza’s sister Guiseppina Ronzini who told them she believed her brother was mentally disturbed and had recently been acting ‘very strangely’.

Speranza had been bitter about not receiving compensation for a neck injury he sustained in a car accident and wanted to kill his brother-in-law, who he blamed for colluding with the insurance company.

For three or four days before the attempted hijacking Speranza would only say when asked what was wrong, ‘I have something to do, mind your own business’.

The KB bomb was found to contain about 200 grams of gunpowder and 300 grams of lead shot as well as two screwdriver blades. The smaller device contained 70 grams of powder and 140 grams of shrapnel. 

Two replicas of the bombs were built and detonated at the Anzac Rifle Range at Malabar in Sydney’s eastern suburbs for the benefit of the coroner. 

‘The bigger bomb lifted a derelict vehicle up off the ground and it became consumed in flames,’ Officer 3 said. ‘The smaller device was put under a 44 gallon drum and blew debris 50 feet in the air.’ 

The destructive capability of the bombs Speranza took onto the jet was demonstrated for a coroner at the Anzac Rifle Range at Malabar in Sydney's eastern suburbs (above)

Coroner Len Nash said having seen the detonation of the KB beer can bomb any sceptics who claimed Speranza did not need to be shot ‘should now be silent’.

‘It is quite obvious the device was capable of not only destroying the aircraft but causing the deaths or injury to hundreds of persons at the terminal at the time,’ he found. 

Mr Nash commended the SWOS team members, as well as Thomas and Burrows, who had all placed themselves ‘at great personal risk’ during the operation. 

‘The only homicide that could be considered in my opinion on the evidence is that one of a justifiable homicide,’ he found.

‘It is quite obvious from the evidence placed before me that what transpired was the last resort, there was no other way open to the officer of police there other than to shoot the deceased.

‘It is unfortunate that the shooting resulted in his death but there seems to be no other way that he could have been stopped from doing what he intended to do.’

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