By Leonora Dodsworth
December 15, 1980 12:00 PM

In 1969 an American Marine named Raffaele Minichiello hijacked a TWA jet to fly to his dying father’s bedside in Italy. The crime caught the world’s imagination, but Raffaele still went to prison. Last week he followed his humanitarian impulses again—this time to earthquake-ravaged southern Italy. As snow swirled down, Minichiello came upon an old woman wrapped in a black shawl. Afraid another tremor might topple her damaged farmhouse, she crouched outside, sheltered only by a makeshift tent. Yet when Minichiello jumped from his borrowed truck to unload emergency supplies, she protested, “No, give to other people in greater need.” Finally she reluctantly accepted a few biscuits, some pasta and a pair of shoes. “Proud people won’t grab all the goods they can lay their hands on,” explains Minichiello, 31. “Distribution should be organized so the needy can accept aid with dignity.”

Because they believe their government is either too corrupt or inept to carry out relief operations, thousands of Italians like Minichiello are pitching in directly. A Rome bartender, he has already made three trips to the region of his birth northeast of Naples, part of the devastated area where 3,000 are dead and 310,000 homeless. In the first days after the quake Minichiello collected $1,750 from customers and friends, then used the money to buy warm clothing, boots and toiletries. He drove more than 300 miles to distribute the purchases himself. “I’ll catch up on my sleep sometime,” he says. “I mistrust institutions, so I give help personally. I know all about people who don’t keep their promises. And I know all about earthquakes in Irpinia. That is where I was born, and that is where all my troubles began.”

They started with a 1962 earthquake that demolished his house and prompted his family to move to Seattle. In 1967 Raffaele dropped out of high school to join the Marines. Sent to Vietnam, he learned that his father, stricken with cancer, had returned to Italy to die. Raffaele saved his pay for the trip, but wound up $200 short. Desperate, he hijacked the jet in Los Angeles and forced the pilot to fly to Rome. There he surrendered, but his obvious love for papa and patria made him a minor hero. Italian authorities refused to extradite him to the U.S., and he served only 18 months. Eventually Raffaele hopes to return to America to visit his mother, sister and friends in Seattle. “I’m very different now from how I was,” he says. “I’m sorry for what I did to those people on the plane. They didn’t know it, but my gun wasn’t even loaded. It was all a big crazy bluff.”

After his release in 1971 Minichiello floundered for a while—once even posing in the nude for a pin-up magazine—then landed his bartending job. Soon afterward he met the bar owner’s daughter, Cinzia, and married her; they have a son, Cristiano, 6. Reluctant to dwell on his past, Minichiello sees himself now as a man with a cause. “In 1962,” he remembers, “the earthquake left us with nothing—and no one came to help.” As a result Minichiello has an abiding lack of faith in Italian bureaucracy. “Italy is an earthquake-prone country,” he concedes, “but it is also technologically advanced, and there can be no excuse for such tardiness in getting aid to the quake area.” He plans another relief mission soon to distribute gas heaters, then will return once again, not as Raffaele Minichiello but as Babbo natale. “Just before Christmas,” he says proudly, “I’m going to take a load of toys down for the kids.”