The idea that Soviet fighter jets would shoot down a Boeing 747 airliner seems shockingly unbelievable. Two-hundred sixty-nine innocent people died in a largely forgotten Cold War attack that took place exactly 30 years ago this weekend.
On a sultry August night in 1983 at New York's JFK airport, Alice Ephraimson-Abt, a brilliant, 23-year-old, blue-eyed blonde, was about to board Korean Air Lines Flight 007 for Seoul, South Korea, halfway around the world. For one last time, she held her father, New Jersey businessman Hans Ephraimson-Abt, before saying goodbye. "There were hugs and I-love-yous," her father, now 91, told CNN.
Alice -- who was excited about heading Beijing to teach English and study -- could have been a diplomat -- a contributor to peace, her father said. "Her death was a great loss to her generation."
The ramifications of the shoot-down of Flight 007 reverberated far beyond the lives lost. It sparked global outrage, conspiracy theories and an activist movement that continues today. It also joined a list of disturbing developments that made 1983 one of the scariest years of the Cold War. Not since 1962's Cuban Missile Crisis had the world teetered so close to the unthinkable, according to declassified documents released last May.
It seemed like each month brought with it new and troubling headlines.
President Ronald Reagan, in March, said the Soviet Union amounted to an "evil empire." A few weeks later Washington announced it was working on a new space-based weapon. The press dubbed it "Star Wars."
That October, on the Caribbean island of Grenada, a coup and the deployment of pro-Soviet Cuban forces prompted the Pentagon to invade with thousands of troops. The following month the United States and NATO staged war games that depicted a nuclear attack scenario.
Fear seeped into TV, movies and music. In November, more than 100 million viewers tuned into ABC's nuclear attack drama, "The Day After." The following month, film crews began shooting "Red Dawn," about a Soviet invasion of America. Playlists on radio and MTV included "99 Luftballoons," a Cold War protest song.
But it was the downing of KAL 007 that opened many eyes to the Cold War's widening wave of darkness, its increasing uncertainty and its growing threat to peace.
Alice Ephraimson-Abt's flight made a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, and -- following the tradition of the well-traveled family -- she phoned her father. She told him about a U.S. congressman, Rep. Larry McDonald, who also was aboard. One of 61 Americans on the plane, McDonald was a conservative Georgia Democrat and outspoken anti-communist.
What we know about the next five hours aboard Flight 007 comes from CNN interviews with ex-Soviet officials, the cockpit voice transcript and a 1993 report from the United Nation's International Civil Aviation Organization.
After the 747 took off for Seoul at 4 a.m. local time, the crew set their autopilot. What they apparently didn't know was, it was set to fail.
The plane began drifting off its intended course, and heading toward Soviet territory.
Hours later, passengers heard the familiar crew announcement, "Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing at Seoul Gimpo International Airport in about three hours. Local time in Seoul right now is 3 a.m. Before landing, we will be serving beverages and breakfast, thank you."
But sadly, there would be no landing.
Twenty-six minutes later, the captain was announcing an emergency decent and ordering crew to put on oxygen masks.
Fighter pilot: 'I had a job to do'
As it neared Soviet airspace, Flight 007 was being tracked at military installations. Soviet fighter pilots and their commanders knew they were being watched, too. U.S. spy planes patrolling the region created a constant state of tension, they said later.
American surveillance aircraft included Boeing RC-135s, the military version of a Boeing 707, which looked very much like a civilian airliner.
Packed with electronic surveillance gear, RC-135s often flew figure-eight patterns near passenger routes.
By this time Flight 007 had deviated more than 200 miles from its planned route.
Commanders at Dolinsk-Sokol airbase scrambled two Sukhoi Su-15 fighter jets and ordered them to intercept the airliner.
"I could see two rows of windows which were lit up," Soviet pilot, Col. Gennadi Osipovitch, told CNN in 1998, describing the 747's tell-tale double-deck configuration. "I wondered if it was a civilian aircraft -- military cargo planes don't have such windows."
"I wondered what kind of plane it was but I had no time to think," Osipovitch recalled. "I had a job to do. I started to signal to [the pilot] in international code. I informed him that he had violated our airspace. He did not respond." The Soviets fired warning shots with brightly-lit tracers, said Soviet Lt. Gen. Valentin Varennikov.
Inside KAL 007's cockpit, the flight crew appeared to be unaware of the Soviet fighters flying alongside. The pilot failed to react, the general said, and continued on course.