December 17: A Day of Highs and Lows
The day includes the Wright Brothers taking flight at Kitty Hawk, the signing of NAFTA but also darker events such as the disappearance and probable drowning of Australia’s Prime Minister, a street vendor’s self-immolation that would ultimately spark a revolution and the beginning of a 126 day hostage crisis at the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Peru.
Flight at Kitty Hawk
The first man-powered flight occurred in the sands of the Outer Banks when the Wright Brothers launched the Wright Flyer.
Taking turns, the Wrights made four brief, low-altitude flights that day. The flight paths were all essentially straight; turns were not attempted. Each flight ended in a bumpy and unintended “landing”. The last flight, by Wilbur, was 852 feet (260 m) in 59 seconds, much longer than each of the three previous flights of 120, 175 and 200 feet. The landing broke the front elevator supports, which the Wrights hoped to repair for a possible four-mile (6 km) flight to Kitty Hawk village. Soon after, a heavy gust picked up the Flyer and tumbled it end over end, damaging it beyond any hope of quick repair. It was never flown again.
Australian Prime Minister Disappears in Rough Seas
Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt went swimming in heavy surf at Cheviot Beach (about 45 miles from Melbourne) and disappeared – never to be found.
North American Free Trade Agreement Signed
President George H.W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney and Mexican President Salinas signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – a landmark trade agreement between the three nations.
Peruvian Embassy Hostage Crisis
Peruvian guerillas stormed a party at the Official Residence of the Japanese Ambassador, taking more than 600 hostages that included hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives. After a 126-day standoff., Peruvian special forces stormed the embassy, freeing all but hostage and killing all the guerillas.
The rescue was a huge boosts for Peruvian Prime Minister Fujimori, but reports have since emerged alleging that a number of the insurgents were summarily executed after surrendering.
The events were dramatized in “Bel Canto,” which won the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2001 and has since been adopted into an opera.
Street Vendor’s Self Immolation Sparks Arab Spring
On this day, Tunisian street vendor Tare el-Tyeb Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest harassment and humiliation from municipal officials, sparking the Tunisian Revolution and Arab Spring. Bouazizi died 18 days later. Ten days after his death, President Abiding Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years in power.