When Darin Shrock ’06 boarded flight ET-702 from Ethiopia to Rome with his wife, Jolene, and 5-year-old daughter, he thought he’d be spending the next five hours sleeping. After all, it was a red-eye flight — something they’d done before on trips from Ethiopia to the United States.
As CEO of the nonprofit Awake & Alive, which runs a school for at-risk children in the slum of Kechene, Ethiopia, Shrock has traveled to and from Africa many times. The purpose of this particular trip was to check on progress at Awake & Alive’s compound, which is currently building a larger facility to serve more students, and bring his daughter, Claire, back to see the country where she was born for the first time since her adoption.
The Shrocks left Kechene excited about the progress made, which will allow them to double their current enrollment of 68, but ready to go home to their other two children, also adopted from Ethiopia.
About an hour into the flight, Shrock was suddenly awakened when oxygen masks dropped and passengers were instructed to put them on. The plane dove, leading Shrock to believe there had been some sort of mechanical problem.
“We felt turbulence,” Shrock says. “There was this sound like ice cracking around the plane. We didn’t know what was going on, but we held on and prepared for the worst.”
About 15 minutes later, the plane leveled out and Shrock turned to a flight attendant to ask what was going on. He was told they were still headed to Rome, and the plane continued to fly for five hours with the televisions and lights off.
“At one point, my wife had a panic attack,” Shrock says. “We spent the rest of the flight talking and praying, not knowing what would happen or if we would make it back to our 3-year-olds.”
After circling for about 30 minutes, the plane finally came to a safe landing, a full hour after it was scheduled to arrive in Rome. But rather than let the passengers out, emergency vehicles swarmed the plane before removing a man from the cockpit.
Shrock learned that the plane had been circling with French and Italian fighter jets while the co-pilot, who had hijacked the plane, was negotiating with authorities. He had locked himself in the cabin about an hour into the flight, and had redirected the plane to Switzerland, where he was seeking asylum. He claimed that he did not intend to hurt anyone.
When passengers were finally released, it was by armed police officers who searched and questioned them, one by one.
Shrock thanked God the situation had ended as it did.
“We landed with just 20 minutes of fuel left and one working engine — on an airstrip that they don’t usually allow 767s to land on,” Shrock says. “And normally, Swiss authorities don’t negotiate with hijackers.”
Though understandably shaken by the situation, Shrock says this won’t deter them from flying to Ethiopia again. In fact, Jolene is already planning a trip for the summer of 2015.
“We’ve been there six times in the last five years. Nothing is changing our minds,” Shrock says. “But it’s good to be on the ground now.”
To learn more about the organization, visit AwakeandAlive.org.