Two '99s minutes away from massacre

by Joseph C. Scott | 11/20/97 6:00am

Monday's massacre of 58 people at the Temple of Hatsepshut in Luxor, Egypt by a group of Islamic militants contained a strange Dartmouth twist -- two students from the College were in the area and narrowly avoided the incident.

Allison Fisch '99 and Courtney Derman '99 were in Luxor on Monday as part of the Semester at Sea exchange program, and according to Derman's mother, Barbara, Fisch and another student were on the east bank of the Nile River trying to cross to the temple when they received news of the shootings.

Mrs. Derman, who said she received the information from her daughter, Courtney, said Fisch and the other student were attempting to find a ferry to temple.

The massacre occurred when a number of tourists -- mostly Japanese and European -- were ambushed near the ancient temple, a structure dating from before 1400 B.C. Reports indicated that the militants opened fire with automatic weapons.

Fisch and the other student were "bargaining for passage" on the ferry when the man operating the boat "told them there had been a shooting." Then the students returned to their hotel, Mrs. Derman said.

On the way back, the students "ran into two boys who had been on a ferry when it was turned back" by reports of the massacre. Some students reported they were actually "going to buy tickets to get in" to see the temple when they were "herded into the ticket booths and kept there" for their protection, Mrs. Derman added.

All of the students in the Semester at Sea program were "sequestered" and "put into one hotel," she said. She said there were about "30 students or maybe more" from various colleges and universities in the group.

That evening the hotel was surrounded by police. The next day, "someone from the State Department flew down from Cairo to Luxor" in order to "facilitate" the students' departure.

The students were flown to Cairo, then taken by bus to Port Said, where they boarded the Semester at Sea ship, and headed for Cyprus, Mrs. Derman said.

The attack killed 58 tourists. Four others, including two policemen, were killed in a later shootout with the gunmen, according to the Associated Press. One gunman was killed at the temple, and another five in the other shootout.

An outlawed religious faction, the al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, or Islamic Group, claimed responsibility for the attack. Al-Gamaa said that is seeks the release of its spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman is in prison for his role in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

Tourism, at Luxor in particular, is an important part of Egypt's economy. Despite increases in security, hundreds of tourists have left the country, and tour agents have been canceling thousands of bookings.