Busting Drug DealErs: Chapter One
Terrorists Attack My Family
July 11, 1988
I recognized the sound as soon as I heard it, but my brain sent conflicting signals. Even as the horrible clatter shattered the calm of what had been a perfect July day aboard a ferry in the Mediterranean, my training and experience left no doubt about the source. It was an assault weapon firing fully automatic bursts. An AK-47, the Soviet Kalashnikov favored by Middle East terrorist groups, or something similar.
I paused at the bottom of the stairs, struggling to comprehend the situation. A sudden explosion in the ceiling of the adjacent dining saloon sent fragments of ceiling tile, metal pipe, and decorative molding flying across the room, over-turning chairs and tables. Water spraying from a hole in the ceiling left a mist in the air, and a faint smell of bananas mixed with gunpowder.
I turned toward the stairs, but before I could reach the bottom step to head up a deck, stampeding passengers coming down forced me to stand aside. Screams of panicked tourists were accompanied by sporadic rattle of automatic gunfire.
Standing near amidships on the ferry, I was momentarily alone in a soundless cocoon while panicked passengers ran past me toward the bow or to the stern to escape the source of the gunfire, blocking my way up the stairs. I turned toward the railing desperately searching for another way to the upper deck.
Eight hours earlier, my wife, Ginny, and eight-year-old son, Tor, and I had impatiently stood by at our hotel in Athens, waiting to be picked up by the tour service, but no one had arrived.
“I can’t believe you decided to wear that tacky I Survived Hong Kong T-shirt,” Ginny chided me. “And the cutoffs? Don’t you think a newly promoted DEA agent should dress a little nicer?” she kidded, shaking her head.
“Hey, it’s going to be hot. We’ll be in the sun and on the water all day,” I replied defensively. “Besides, I don’t want to ruin a good shirt. We can’t all look so elegant, dressed in a contrasting, but matching outfit,” I said, winking, while looking her up and down, admiring her trim body. At forty-one years old, she still looked the fit athlete she had once been, and I was nuts about her.
After delaying until the last possible moment, the hotel concierge had finally offered to pay for a cab. We anticipated a July day at sea and scrambled aboard the City of Poros less than five minutes before it cast off. Stopping us as we boarded, the purser checked our Cyclandic Cruises one-day ticket to tour the islands of Hydra, Poros, and Aegina—beautiful Greek islands in the Saronic Gulf.
It was a fantastic day, warm with a clear blue sky and deep aquamarine sea. After visiting all three islands as scheduled, we were returning to Athens late in the afternoon. I had been almost lulled to sleep by the motion of the vessel cutting through the gentle swells as it headed due north on its route from Aegina back to the port of Piraeus.
With ongoing drug investigations always on my mind, I hadn’t experienced such relaxation in a long time. I leaned back against the rail on the top sun deck and opened my eyes. Squinting into the sun, I scanned the horizon. Far off in the distance I saw what appeared to be another ferry off the port bow. I gazed at Ginny and Tor.
Ginny lounged in a deck chair on my right with her eyes closed. I admired the fact she kept herself in excellent physical condition even though she no longer seemed to have time for regular workouts. She still weighed nearly the same as prior to her defection from Bulgaria to the US.
Tor, in a green T-shirt declaring that he loved Lake Ridge, Virginia, and a pair of blue shorts, leaned against the rail, fascinated by his surroundings, his young eyes anxious to take in everything and explore. I wondered what questions he would have for me at the end of the day and hoped I’d be able to answer them. I dropped my empty beer can into a nearby trash can. The sound caused Ginny to stir and open her eyes.
“Isn’t this beautiful?” she asked, raising a hand to shade her eyes from the sun while peeking over sunglasses, her white shirt accenting her tan.
“Sure is,” I replied, still momentarily reflecting on the normal stresses associated with my job. “I’d better go check with the cruise director about transportation from the pier back to the hotel. After that screw-up this morning, I may turn another year older before we get a ride back to the hotel.”
Since no one had picked us up that morning, I doubted that anyone had scheduled transportation to return us to the hotel. I had no idea how difficult it may be to grab a cab from the dock late in the day. When I stood, Tor immediately looked up and asked, “Where’re you going, Dad? Can I come?”
“No, you stay and take care of your mother. I’m just going down to find the cruise director to make sure we have a ride back to the hotel.”
I turned to the stairs and glanced toward the bow. Several tourists packed along the port rail, most of them speaking French among themselves. Alongside the smokestack amid- ships were cushions on what appeared to be storage lockers doubling as seats. A young girl in her early twenties stood up from her seat on the cushioned bench.
Her movement caught my eye not only because it broke the continuity of the scene of tired and sated tourists on the last leg of an all-day cruise, but also because I recognized the girl. Dark eyes, with short black curly hair, wearing a blue top and white shorts.
She and two companions, a guy and another girl, sat next to us at lunch. I remembered her because she attempted to speak French to Ginny, and became extremely rude when Ginny replied that she didn’t speak the language.
I mentally flashed back to the incident and wondered what kind of man would be with such an obnoxious little shrew. I had looked at the guy sitting with the two young women.
At the corner of the table, the man sat mute, not participating in the ongoing conversation conducted in French by the two girls. Propped up on the seat next to him was a large backpack like I had seen carried by trekkers to Nepal, or students bumming around Europe. He seemed almost like a ghost companion, watching and listening, but not speaking.
After fifteen minutes, all three left the table and went out on deck, the man never having said a word.
During several years overseas with DEA, I learned to profile individuals based on the physical traits and characteristics of numerous nationalities, but I couldn’t pin this guy down.
He appeared Arabic, possibly Lebanese. On the other hand, he could just as easily have been Greek, Turkish, Afghan, or a Pathan from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.
He appeared to be in his midtwenties. The women’s silent companion had the classic Yasser Arafat beard, a few weeks’ growth of stubble. Although he had more hair, less beard, and was a couple inches taller, he reminded me of pictures of Mehmet Ali Agca, the would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II who had attempted to kill the Pontiff seven years earlier.
I wondered if the slim young French girl, now putting a white sailor cap on her head, was still with the silent man. I shrugged it off, turned, and went down the stairway to find the cruise director.
Thoughts of whoever she was, or of her mystery male companion, vanished as gunfire drove stampeding passengers down the stairs. I abandoned my attempts to go back up the stairs, dashed to starboard, climbed over the guardrail, and pulled myself up to the sun deck.
As I clambered over the rail onto the upper deck and nearly tripped over a fallen victim of the shooter, I was drowned in the wails and crying of injured and frightened passengers.
Thick black smoke belched from the destroyed wheel- house. Through the commotion I heard Tor’s screams. “Mommy, Daddy! The man shot me! The man shot me! Mommy! Daddy!”
I turned toward the cries coming from the bow, scanning the overturned chairs and tables on the sun deck, and saw Ginny staggering toward me, avoiding the body of a woman who had been sitting next to us before the shooting began. Suddenly, in spite of intermittent gunfire, Ginny turned and went back toward the overturned table.
“Ginny! No!” I screamed at her, but she grabbed my small tote before turning back and scrambling toward me. “I had to get our passports and your cameras,” she gasped, giving me the bag.
We hurried toward the screams of our son and found him near the starboard bow, packed among panicked passengers. Doing a quick check, I pulled his blood-splattered shirt up and looked for the source. Although I found a slight flesh wound on his chest, where I suspected he was grazed by a bullet or possibly flying shrapnel from the explosion, my hasty examination showed no other wounds.
Trying to calm him down, we pulled him out of the crowd of tourists, and I led Ginny and Tor back to the railing where I had climbed up from the lower deck. Still attempting to get away from the shooter and the chaos on the sun deck, I climbed over the railing, dropped onto a life boat, helped my wife and son get down, and we jumped to the deck below.
My first thought was to launch the lifeboat. Unfortunately, several tourists had climbed into the boat, and the weight caused it to sway on its pulleys. Another passenger and I attempted to release the launch, tugging at the pulleys and the lines holding it fast, but couldn’t disengage it.
Through frantic hand gestures and a smattering of English, French, and Greek, we managed to communicate to those hunkering in the boat to get out in hopes that by alleviating the weight, the lifeboat might be lowered to the sea. Several people helped tug on the ropes, but we still couldn’t get it free.
The gunfire, accompanied by terrified screams, was getting closer.
Photos from the Attack