TAULABE, Honduras – Visitors to Honduras’ Taulabe Caves, which were discovered 50 years ago, can hear the tale of Frederick William Hahneman, who hijacked a US airliner in 1972, parachuted into the area with $303,000 and hid in the caverns.
“These caves were discovered in 1969 when a company from Israel was working on the construction of the northern highway,” tour guide Susan Ochoa told EFE while using a flashlight to illuminate the path leading into the cave system.
The paved road was designed to link the two most important cities in Honduras, San Pedro Sula, in the north, and Tegucigalpa, the capital, located in the country’s central region, which are some 234 kilometers (145 miles) away from each other.
During a tour of the caves, which takes at least 30 minutes, Ochoa shows visitors different formations and figures created by stalactites and stalagmites.
Visitors are able to see a variety of figures, including one shaped like a shark, with an open mouth and teeth, and another known as “la nariz del indio” (the Indian’s nose).
Some of the naturally formed figures in the caves can weigh up to four tons, Ochoa said.
A “hat,” formed by a stalagmite, hangs over the entrance to the caves.
Little detailed information is available about the interior of the Taulabe Caves, but experts have helped explore the system to a depth of about 921 meters (3,019 feet), the office in charge of managing the caves said.
The Taulabe Caves are located some 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) south of San Pedro Sula and about 140 kilometers (some 87 miles) north of Tegucigalpa.
Visitors move through the caves slowly, viewing figures formed by stalactites, some of which are true works of natural art, displaying extensive detail, such as the formation known as the “angel’s wings,” and by stalagmites, which rise from the cave floor, showing off their vivid colors in the lighting system installed years ago.
The cement walking path, which has railings for safety, and the lighting system were put in about 26 years ago, thanks to a grant from the Spanish Agency for International Development Aid (AECID).
Residents of Taulabe say that the cave, which is hot and humid, is actually part of a system of 24 caverns situated around the town, located in the northern province of Cortes.
Some people say that the Taulabe Caves, one of several impressive cavern systems in this Central American nation, could run for about 11 kilometers (some 7 miles) and reach Lake Yojoa, or possibly be part of a system that stretches to western Honduras and is crisscrossed by underground rivers and thermal springs.
The word Taulabe, according to some historical accounts, is an indigenous term for “meeting of roads” or “road of the jaguar,” a bit of trivia that skyjacker Frederick William Hahneman, a Honduran-born US citizen, was likely not aware of when he took over an Eastern Airlines plane on May 5, 1972.
The Boeing 727, which was equipped with aft airstairs, was flying from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Miami, Florida, with 48 passengers aboard when Hahneman, an engineer, made his move.
Hahneman surprised the crew of Eastern Airlines Flight 175, threatening them with a handgun, media reports from the time said.
The skyjacker told Eastern Airlines that he wanted $303,000 in cash, six parachutes, food and cigarettes, Honduran journalist Alberto Garcia Marrder, who worked for EFE in Washington in 1972, recalled two years ago.
After landing at Dulles International Airport in Washington, where all the passengers and one flight attendant were released, Flight 175 continued on to New Orleans.
Hahneman, whose mother was Honduran, ordered the pilot to fly to northern Honduras, where he parachuted from the plane between the port cities of Tela and La Ceiba, located in Atlantida province on the Caribbean coast.
Press reports from the time said that Hahneman landed in the Siempreviva area, walked several kilometers, got on a bus and traveled to Tela, where he got a haircut before continuing on to San Pedro Sula, where his mother, Delia Pastor Ordońez, lived.
“Hahneman was betrayed by a friend, who turned him in. He was here 16 days and they say they offered 1,000 lempiras (about $500 in 1972) to anyone who helped capture him,” Ochoa, the tour guide, said.
Hahneman, who hid for about 20 days in the Taulabe Caves, eventually took the advice of a relative in Honduras and surrendered to US authorities.
The skyjacker was sentenced to life in prison, but he only spent 12 years behind bars. He was released in 1984 and died on Dec. 17, 1991, at the age of 69.
After he surrendered, rumors spread that Hahneman hid some of the money in the caves, prompting some tourists who were young in 1972 to joke that they traveled to Taulabe to find “the dollars left here” by the skyjacker.
US authorities recovered all the money, but Hahneman’s motive for hijacking the Eastern Airlines plane was never determined.