‘Goodbye everybody’: the Swissair 330 disaster

On February 21, 1970, Switzerland was shaken when Swissair 330 bound for Tel Aviv crashed shortly after take-off from Zurich, killing everyone on board: 38 passengers and nine crew. No one has ever appeared in court for the bombing, the worst terrorist attack in Swiss history.

This content was published on February 21, 2020 minutes

“330 is crashing,” co-pilot Armand Etienne told the control tower in English. “Goodbye everybody,” he said. "Goodbye everybody." These final words were said at 1:34pm. 

About 15 minutes earlier, an altitude-sensitive bomb had exploded in the rear cargo compartment of the plane, a Convair 990 Coronado. The crew tried to turn around and attempt an emergency landing at Zurich but struggled to see the instruments in the smoke-filled cockpit. The aircraft deviated to the west and crashed in a wooded area at Würenlingen, near the German border, as a result of loss of electrical power. 

Arthur Schneider, a local politician at the time, arrived on the scene about half an hour later. “I saw a hand just lying there on the forest floor. I can’t get that image out of my head,” he told Swiss public radio, SRFExternal link, in 2016. 

Other witnesses reported seeing a “massive fireball”, with one fearing the plane had crashed into the nearby nuclear power plant. The wreck was eventually found a few hundred metres from the plant. 

On Friday, exactly 50 years after the disaster, a commemorative event will be held at a memorial at the crash site. It has been organised by Schneider and Ruedi Berlinger, son of the plane’s captain, Karl Berlinger. 

Both men say it’s important not only to keep the memory of the tragedy alive, but also to clear up what actually happened. 

Secret deal? 

Swiss news agencies said a splinter group of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had claimed responsibility, although other media reports said the group denied involvement.

Within a few days the main suspect was named as a Jordanian national who had allegedly posted the bomb in Munich – from where the plane had come – to a fictitious address in Israel, with the intention of blowing up an Israeli El Al plane. However, as a result of a change of flights, it ended up on a Swissair plane. Fifteen Israeli citizens were on board. 

Yet the Jordanian and other suspects were never taken to court, despite arrest warrants. In 1970 the Swiss investigating judge, Robert Akeret, personally handed his 165-page report to the federal attorney-general, Hans Walder. According to this report, the bombing was committed by two members of the PLO. 

However, Akeret saysExternal link Bern threw a “cloak of silence” over the case. “It’s a mystery to me why the perpetrators never appeared in court,” he said. 

Initial investigations into the bombing were closed in 1985, re-opened ten years later and finally discontinued in 2000.  

However, in 2016 Marcel Gyr, a journalist at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, claimed in a bookExternal link that the former foreign minister, Pierre Graber, had struck a deal with the PLO that assured Swiss diplomatic support in exchange for immunity from further terrorist attacks. These claims and suspicions of a cover-up were never proven and a parliamentary control committee found there was no case to answer concerning allegations of a secret Swiss deal. 

Two years later a private citizen asked for the probe to be re-opened after FBI documents found their way into the media, pointing the finger at two unknown people from the then West Germany. However, in August 2018 the Swiss attorney-general said the file would remain closed as the new evidence was not strong enough and because too much time had elapsed since the crime was committed.

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