Skip to main content

In 2009, while while working a CanJet flight to Jamaica, Carolina Santizo Arriola found herself in an aircraft hostage situation. She and fellow flight attendant Nicole Foran made key decisions that freed more than 160 passengers and disarmed the gunman as commandos stormed the plane.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

She turned the corner into the aircraft's galley and smiled at the hostage-taker holding a revolver to the captain's neck. The gunman smiled back.

Carolina Santizo Arriola doesn't recall flashing that fateful grin, but in hindsight she knows why she reacted that way even though her life was threatened: She had been trained to smile through uncertainty so as to avoid alarming passengers. Taken by her unexpectedly pleasant greeting, the gunman swapped the single mother into his grip and took her as his primary hostage.

This was April 19, 2009, after CanJet flight 918 from Halifax had touched down in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It was there that Ms. Santizo Arriola and fellow flight attendant Nicole Foran made key decisions that freed more than 160 passengers and disarmed the gunman as commandos stormed the plane.

At Rideau Hall this month, more than four years after the incident, Governor-General David Johnston presented Ms. Santizo Arriola with the Medal of Bravery for convincing the gunman to let the passengers go, and Ms. Foran with the rarer Star of Courage for grabbing the man's weapon.

Their stories of bravery start off The Globe and Mail's Honour Roll of 2013, looking at Canadians whose achievements were recognized this year by the Governor-General. The bravery honours include a teenager who intervened when a student stabbed his friend at a British Columbia high school and a Montreal man who jumped into an icy lake to try to rescue a drowning mother and two children.

For Ms. Foran, receiving the silver star was a "phenomenal feeling," one she will some day describe to her daughter, Emalie, who is now 22 months old. "I want her to know the story and be proud of her mom," the 31-year-old said in a phone interview from her Halifax home, noting it was her father who nominated her for the honour.

The story began minutes after the plane landed in Montego Bay, where some passengers had disembarked, others stayed on for the next stop in Cuba, and still others streamed aboard with Halifax as their ultimate destination in the double-stop journey. That's about the time Stephen Fray ran armed through security and onto the aircraft. Coincidentally, it was also shortly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in Jamaica for a working visit.

Ms. Santizo Arriola, then 28, said she suggested Mr. Fray free the passengers so long as they turned over their cash and left their belongings behind. Ms. Foran, the most senior of the attendants at the back of the plane, came forward to hold a bag as the passengers dropped their cash and disembarked, some crying and apologizing for leaving the crew behind.

Four flight attendants and a security contractor were taken hostage in the passenger cabin, while two more crew – the in-charge flight attendant and the co-pilot – were locked in the cockpit. The captain had been freed under the pretense that he was arranging fuel for take-off.

In the ensuing eight or so hours, as darkness gave way to the morning sunlight, Mr. Fray, according to the women, threatened to kill the contractor, dragged the gun up and down their legs, forced them to cover their heads with clothing, and demanded money and a swift departure.

The women said they kicked into survival mode, with Ms. Santizo Arriola working to "humanize" the situation by asking questions about Mr. Fray's family and telling him about her own. If he shot her, she told him then, he would effectively orphan her young son, Thomas.

"He looked at me straight in the eye and he said, 'You know what? I'll shoot you, and I'll find your son and I'll shoot him, too,'" Ms. Santizo Arriola said in a phone interview from her Bowmanville, Ont., home.

Growing increasingly paranoid, the gunman made an unsuccessful request for music (Celine Dion) and alcohol. He also decided to drug the men so they'd be unable to mount a physical threat, insisting that they take some of the prescription pills that had spilled out from the carry-ons. Ms. Santizo Arriola said she picked up a bottle, recognized it as an antacid and convinced Mr. Fray it was the best option to "knock them right out."

Later, when Mr. Fray was holding the gun to Ms. Foran and looking out the window, a Canadian-trained Jamaican anti-terrorism squad stormed the plane. Amid the commotion, Ms. Foran did what Ms. Santizo Arriola described as a "ninja move" and grabbed Mr. Fray's gun. Soon, they were running from the plane to safety, en route, unknowingly at the time, to meet Mr. Harper in the debriefing room.

Flight 918 was Ms. Foran's last as a crew member. Ms. Santizo Arriola stayed on part-time for a while, but today, both women are married and at home with their children. Mr. Fray, for his part, was sentenced to roughly 20 years behind bars.

The Dec. 5 ceremony was the first time the pair had seen each other since June, 2009, when they and the other CanJet hostages lunched on cucumber soup and Cornish hen at 24 Sussex with Mr. Harper, in gratitude for what they'd all done.

"I just knew I still had so much more I wanted to do with my life," Ms. Foran said. "I promised kids in the back [of the plane] that I was going to get them off and get them home. I wanted to keep my promise, and I did."