It happened on a sun-baked taxiway as our Boeing 727 prepared to depart from the Caribbean island of Curacao. And although I was right there, in the middle of the action -- along with a planeload of passengers and six fellow crew members -- I still can't believe it actually happened.
A few moments before we departed for Miami, I performed my part of the routine safety demonstration and then headed for my seat. Of the four flight attendants on board, two were assigned to the jump seat near the forward entry door. The other attendant and I were to occupy the seat attached to the emergency door at the rear of the aircraft.
The plane was full of suntanned vacationers, their smiles slowly fading as paradise became just another fond memory and the realities of the real world began to occupy their thoughts. None of them knew they were about to witness one of the boldest heists in aviation history.
After the captain made his departure announcement, the engines roared, the plane lurched forward and the aircraft began to roll down the taxiway. Some passengers dozed, others flipped impatiently through magazines. I chatted with Amy, the flight attendant beside me.
Suddenly, the plane came to a halt. From my seat at the rear of the aircraft, I saw the cockpit door swing open. Our captain -- a no-nonsense, ex-military type -- marched down the aisle at a gait that made everyone nervous. His face was a mask of professional indifference that aroused more suspicion than it averted. I turned to Amy. She threw a look at me. Without opening our mouths we came to the same conclusion: Something was terribly wrong.
As the captain approached, we unbuckled our seat belts and stood nervously. Like waves closing behind the wake of a speedboat, a mass of passenger heads leaned into the aisle as the captain passed their seats.
"The cargo door indicator light came on," he told me in a hushed voice. "I'm going to go check it out."
He opened the aft emergency door, pulled a lever that lowered the stairs, and a moment later he was gone. Just then, I noticed a passenger with both arms flailing. Apparently, he'd been trying to get our attention for a while. He was seated at a window seat on the left side of the aircraft, and as I approached, he began pointing out the window. "Just before the plane stopped, we saw a guy run underneath the airplane," he said. "He just ran underneath and disappeared." Several passengers nodded their heads.
A man sitting on the opposite side of the plane chimed in. "Yeah, and we saw a guy come from under this side of the airplane. He ran off carrying a bag."
Were we in danger? Was this some kind of terrorist activity? Amy and I exchanged a glance, but before I could run up to the cockpit to alert the first officer, a first-class passenger came running down the aisle. Beneath the thick lenses of his black-framed glasses, his eyes were wide with panic. They were also vaguely familiar.
"Someone ran off with my bag," he told me in a winded voice. "It was in the cargo bin. I ... I just looked out the window and saw someone running away with it."
I grabbed the man by his shoulders to settle him down. That's when I remembered who he was. Over the years I'd seen him on one flight or another, sitting in a first-class seat, chatting with flight attendants he knew by name. He was an air courier for one of the best-known companies in the money transportation business. Air couriers like him are responsible for accompanying large sums of cash and negotiable bonds, but the money is stowed in the cargo hold, not in the airplane cabin.
Here's how large sums of cash are flown from one location to the next: Moments before an airplane departs, an armored truck pulls alongside the aircraft. Gun-toting officers dump the bags of cash into the cargo hold, then watch carefully as the airline ground crew closes the hatch and the plane pulls away from the gate. The operation runs in reverse at the point of arrival.
Suddenly, everything was clear.
The captain came back up the stairs with a puzzled look on his face. "The cargo door is wide open," he told me. "How the hell could --"
I interrupted him, relaying the new facts. His eyes narrowed, and he rushed down the stairs again. I went after him. The courier followed. The three of us stood beneath a smoldering Caribbean sun, mouths open, heads shaking, staring into an open cargo compartment that was missing one rather important piece of luggage.
It didn't take a genius to figure out what happened. According to the courier, there were two money bags. One was filled with unmarked bills in small denominations; the other held negotiable bonds and other monetary instruments. Apparently, the thief crept onto the taxiway and ran alongside the aircraft as it rolled down the taxiway. There were two cargo compartments, but he knew exactly which one to open and exactly how to open it. He also knew which of the two bags to take. It was definitely an inside job, and the rogue was long gone.
After reporting the incident to airport authorities, the crew readied the airplane for a slightly late departure. Realizing there was nothing he could do in Curacao, the courier decided to join us. He had some very bad news to relay to his superiors in Miami.
"Exactly how much money was in the bag?" I whispered as I escorted him back to first-class. His heavy gaze fell upon me, and in that moment I felt sick to my stomach.
"A little more than $500,000," he said.
The three culprits, one of whom worked for the airport, were caught within a month after going on a conspicuous, on-island spending spree. Two years later, they're still in prison.