The Ethiopian Airways plane, which was carrying a total of 202 passengers – including 139 Italians – was hijacked early on Monday morning by the plane’s co-pilot.
The Ethiopian locked himself in the cockpit when the captain went to the toilet during flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa, according to Swiss police.
“The hijacker threatened twice to bring down the plane and those were the moments when I started to think it was over. I thought of my family and nothing else,” Gianfranco Dragà, a geologist from the town of Bressanone, northern Italy was quoted as saying by La Repubblica newspaper.
“We were all sleeping when the oxygen masks all came down,” he said. “We realized something was wrong.
“The co-pilot locked himself in the cockpit and ordered us to put on the oxygen masks – but they didn’t work. For the first time panic broke out. A passenger behind me screamed. I told him not to lose his calm otherwise we would all lose our head.”
Dragà’s wife reported receiving a message from her husband.
“Just before dawn I got a text message on my phone in which Gianfranco told me that the flight had been hijacked and that the passengers feared for their lives.”
Another passenger, Francesco Cuomo, a 25-year-old development economist, said: “I thought the co-pilot was crazy. The hijacking started while we were still in Sudan. When we started to fly over Geneva there were moments of intense fear.”
In an audio recording on Italian media websites, a voice said to be the captain could be heard trying to reassure passengers once they were on the ground.
"The pilot is still locked inside the cockpit but he is not armed," the man is heard saying.
"He threatened to crash the plane," the voice continues. "I don't know his motives and I'm not interested — all I'm interested in is the fact that you're safe."
In a smartphone video also on Italian media, passengers could be seen with their hands behind their heads as a police announcement is heard over loudspeaker repeating: "This is a police operation. Do not move!"
The plane finally landed in Geneva at 6.02am local time, about an hour and a half after it was due in Rome.
After the plane touched down, Geneva police arrested the co-pilot, after he scaled down a rope out of the cockpit window.
Addis Ababa has identified the hijacker as 31-year-old Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn, who has been working for the airline for five years.
He told police "he felt threatened in his country and wants to seek asylum in Switzerland," Swiss police spokesman Eric Grandjean told AFP.
The plane, which was destined first for Rome and then Milan, landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport at around 19:40 on Monday evening.
Eighty-two passengers were then transferred to Milan by coach, La Repubblica said.