Gunman steals plane, threatens to crash into Frankfurt bank

Monday, January 6, 2003

FRANKFURT, Germany -- A man stole a small aircraft at gunpoint Sunday and flew it over downtown Frankfurt, circling skyscrapers and threatening to crash into the European Central Bank. He landed safely after about two hours and was arrested.

The man told a television station he wanted to call attention to Judith Resnik, a U.S. astronaut killed in the 1986 post-launch explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Military jets chased the stolen, two-seat motorized glider as the man began circling slowly above Frankfurt's banking district.

Thousands of people were evacuated from the main railway station, two opera houses and several skyscrapers -- the latter mostly empty.

Police identified the man as a 31-year-old German from Darmstadt, a city some 25 miles south of Frankfurt. Television and radio stations named him as Franz-Stephan Strambach, a student.

"I want to make my great idol Judith Resnik famous with this," he said in a call from the plane to the channel. "She deserves more attention, she was the first Jewish astronaut, and maybe that's why she isn't really considered."

In radio contact with air traffic controllers, the man threatened to crash into the European Central Bank headquarters unless he was allowed the TV interview as well as a call to Baltimore. He later said he wanted to commit suicide by plunging the plane into the Main River.

Police also said the man had identified the Central Bank headquarters as a possible target. A police helicopter was sent up to try to force the plane away from the city. The German air force sent two Phantom jets roaring back and forth across the evening sky.

Central Bank spokeswoman Regina Schueller said security officers evacuated about 10 employees from their offices. The bank's president, Wim Duisenberg, was not in the building.

Though the man told n-tv he didn't want to harm anyone, he threatened to commit suicide once his fuel ran out. He landed at 5:11 p.m. at Frankfurt's international airport, where flights were halted during the drama.

It was unclear if the man was forced to land, or talked down. Air traffic controllers and a police psychologist had been in contact with him.

The man stole the plane Sunday afternoon from an airfield at Babenhausen, just southeast of Frankfurt. He threatened a pilot at gunpoint, seized the controls and took off, said Axel Raab, a spokesman for the German air safety agency.

The plane was a single-engine, Austrian-made Super Dimona motorized glider and belonged to the Babenhausen flying club, a club spokesman said.

The spokesman, who asked not to be named, said the gunman was not a member and had asked about making a short flight with a motorglider before stealing the plane.

Resnik was among the seven astronauts killed when the shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after take off on Jan. 28, 1986, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Strambach's name appears as the webmaster of an Internet site devoted to Resnik, with links documenting her career, death and efforts to remember her, including the position in the night sky of an asteroid carrying her name.

Calls to a listing under his name in Darmstadt went unanswered.

Resnik's brother Charles is listed as a radiologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and has helped run an organization that commemorates the Challenger crew. Attempts to reach him by telephone were unsuccessful.

Frankfurt police did not identify who the pilot of the stolen plane wanted to speak to in Baltimore.

"We can't exclude that this person had contact with the culprit," Frankfurt police president Harald Weiss-Bollandt told a news conference. "We're checking that."

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