Flight of Terror
“I’m no heroine, “protests Uli Derickson, 40. “They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it. I just had a good day.” The 152 other people on TWA Flight 847, however, may disagree. During the first days of the notorious hijacking, Derickson was a source of hope. For a few, she was the difference between life and death. Born in Czechoslovakia, the only child of a German barber and a housewife, she was evacuated with her parents to East Germany in 1945. She and her parents escaped to West Germany and freedom in 1950. She has worked for TWA since 1967 and now lives in rural New Jersey with her husband, Russell, 66, a retired TWA pilot, and their son, Matthew, 7. Derickson recently told her story for the first time to PEOPLE Assistant Editor Jim Calio. In this first installment of a two-part article, she graphically describes what happened when two terrorists, ready for martyrdom, seized the aircraft on June 17.
We had just taken off from Athens about 10 a.m., still climbing out, and I was putting my apron on and getting ready to serve wine and champagne to the first-class passengers. I was looking in my bag for a corkscrew. Suddenly I heard this commotion in the plane, and as I stood up, I was slammed against the cockpit door. Someone kicked me in my left chest with a karate kick, jumped up and kicked me, and then I felt the muzzle of a gun at my left temple.
Two men. Very excited, sweating and shouting Arabic at me to open the door to the cockpit. I speak a little Arabic, so I asked them, “Where are you from, what do you want?” Then I said, “I speak German.” One of the hijackers, the one with the gun, then said in flawless German, “We come to die, we come to die. Open the door. We come to die.”
They had run from the back of the plane, spraying the cabin with a Mace-like substance, and one was holding grenades with the pins removed. He held the pins in his mouth, between his teeth.
I didn’t have the key to the cockpit, and the hijackers started banging away at the door. I shouted, “Captain, captain, open up.” Finally, with the grenade-carrying hijacker kicking away at it, a wooden flap on the bottom that is used for emergency exits flipped down. The hijackers ripped that off and started whacking away with it at the door, but still it didn’t open. Suddenly the door flew open, and it knocked a grenade pin out of the second hijacker’s mouth. Imagine if it had knocked the grenade! He looked at me and I could see he was telling me with his eyes to pick the pin up. I did and put it back between his teeth.
The minute we go in the cockpit they say, “Beirut. Beirut,” but they spoke almost no English, just “Americans—goddamned sons of bitches” and other foul words. I was translating everything in German, and the hijackers were in the cockpit, beating the flight engineer [Benjamin Zimmermann, 45] with a pistol, and the captain [John Testrake, 57] said, “Okay, just a minute. We’re going to Beirut. We have to get flight clearance and talk to the ground.” They said, “No, absolutely no. If you do this, we blow. You fly to Beirut with a map.” So we flew to Beirut with a map. We went into a steep, banking 180° turn, and they wanted the plane to do things it couldn’t do, and all the time he had the pistol cocked and the safety off. He’d release the hammer sometimes and you’d hear it. Click. Click.
The first 20 minutes were the most volatile. I was in the cockpit. The flight crew wanted to see if we had fuel to make it to Beirut, and the hijackers said, “It doesn’t matter. Go until the fuel runs out.” And they’re beating the flight engineer with a gun. Every time he or the co-pilot [Philip Maresca, 42] picked up a mike, they beat them over the head with a gun. And I’m getting pretty upset by this point. I kept crying and then I stopped, and I kept shaking, you know, involuntarily, your nerves do funny things to your body. You’re freezing cold and then you’re awfully hot, and the hijacker—very early on the one who spoke German told me I would not be hurt—he said, “What are you nervous about? I told you I’m not going to hurt you.”
Then the hijackers started clearing out the first-class section—12 passengers—and putting everyone back in coach. They put the men and strong-looking ones near the windows so they couldn’t overpower them, women and children on the outside. Everyone was terrified, but they did what the hijackers wanted. The rest of the cabin crew was forced to go to the back of the plane and sit on the floor.
Everyone had to put their hands behind their necks and bend over, never getting their heads above the tops of the seats. I was the only cabin-crew member allowed to walk around, although always with a hijacker. So when I went back to the cabin for the first time, there was no one to be seen. Empty, yet I knew there were 149 people hiding behind these seats back there. It was incredible.
We flew that way to Beirut, an hour and 45 minutes in the air. When we landed—we’re trained to negotiate a release—I suggested to the German-speaking hijacker that maybe we could let all the women go. No. Nothing. Then I said, please, the old, at least the old women and children. I knew the Arabs have a pretty good respect for family, so I tried to appeal to that.
Finally they said they would let off some of the old women and children. We went up and down the aisle—”Hurry, hurry, hurry,” he kept saying—looking for old women, women with gray hair. Meanwhile, the other hijacker was running up and down the aisle, trying to keep the cabin and cockpit under control.
I inflated the large emergency slide and started putting people on it. They didn’t know where they were, but I told them to run, run and save their lives, jump, jump, jump. There was a little girl sound asleep in her mother’s arms. I said, “Please let the child go and the mother.” Not the mother, he said. And I said, “You can’t let this 4-year-old get off in Beirut without her mother.” “All right, mother too,” he said. They didn’t want to go at first, and I said, “Go, go. Get out. Save your life.” When her mother went down the slide, the little girl didn’t even wake up.
When the slide went down, I thought of leaving with the others. I kept getting closer to the slide, and finally the German-speaking hijacker said, “You stay, you stay. Understand?” I realized that if I tried to leave, they might shoot us or kill someone on the aircraft for my action. So I didn’t. I thought, forget it, I’m going to stay.
We unhooked the slide. I never knew I was so strong, but one of the hijackers helped me lift the slide off the hooks near the door. We closed the door, and we went rolling. We weren’t in Beirut very long.
We took off to an unknown destination. When we were in the air, they told us Algiers. I said to myself, “Oh, my God, that’s four hours away.”
The first thing they did was start collecting everybody’s passport. I said I didn’t have anything to put them in, so the German-speaking hijacker started running frantically up and down the aisle, and he finally pulled one of the passenger’s bags out and emptied it, dumped it and gave me that bag. It was a cloth bag with very colorful stripes. The hijacker goes with me, putting passports in the bag.
The hijacker was especially interested in the American military men who were not carrying passports, only green identification cards. “Well, what is he?” he says. “What nationality?” Then they found the one red “official” American passport belonging to Kurt Carlson [a major in the Army Reserve on active duty for Middle East projects].
They called them up to the first-class section one by one. Carlson wanted me to tell him he was in the Army Reserve. I’m talking through my teeth to him: “The less you say, the better.” The hijacker wanted to know what “official” passport means. I told him, “Oh, it could mean a lot of things—a special trip.” Then Robert Stethem was called up, and he told the hijackers he was in the Navy. The hijacker started talking about the New Jersey [the battleship that bombarded the hills near Beirut in 1984] and kept asking me, “What is the word for Navy in German?” Well, our word for Navy is Marine, which is like Marines, so I said, “No. Not Marines. Navy.” But he never understood very well. They brought up the others, [Clinton] Suggs and the rest, military, you know, with short haircuts and ID cards. They kept those four guys singled out.
Then they had us separate the Americans from the others—I remember seeing at least about 12 or 15 non-American passports—then all the women from the men. They kept changing people’s seats all through the flight.
At one point, Dr. [Arthur] Toga got my attention and said that his wife was pregnant and was very uncomfortable. I went up to the hijackers, and one of them immediately cleaned out the first row of coach for her and started talking to her. He was very concerned.
They were almost human again. They even helped me serve water, and they made sure that the airflow was going. I think they were very afraid of chaos on the plane, right?
When we got to Algiers, at 4, maybe 5 p.m., the hijackers got nervous again. They were running back and forth, and I was in the cockpit, again translating. The Algerians looked like they were stalling about fueling the plane, trying to buy time, and the hijackers were very upset.
At one point one of the hijackers leaned out of a cockpit window, all the way out except for his legs. The captain called me over and said, “What do you think, Uli?” We could have tossed him out very easily, but we couldn’t be sure of the other hijacker in back. He had the live grenades, and the whole airplane would have gone up.
There was a lot of shouting between the ground crew and the cockpit. The ground crew wanted to get paid for the fuel. They are screaming for cash or a credit card, and the hijackers are threatening to kill one passenger every five minutes if we didn’t get fuel. The captain turns around and says, “This is ridiculous.” The co-pilot is bright red in the face, screaming his lungs out to the ground not to be so stupid, we don’t carry a card. So I ran back to the cabin and asked, “Does anyone have a credit card?” As I was shouting this, I said, “What’s wrong with me? I’ve got a Shell card.” So I asked for permission to go to my purse, and I got out my card and gave it to them. They put 6,000 gallons of jet fuel on my Shell credit card, about $5,500 worth.
We took off again for Beirut. It was probably better for me than the others, because I was constantly walking up and down, constantly talking to the hijackers, instead of being hunched down and hot and uncomfortable. It was incredible. One of the hijackers would run up, down, up and down the aisle. Once he jumped three feet in the air and landed on a woman and shattered her glasses in her face because she turned her head to get a little air. This is torture. They are trained to do this. These are terrorists.
And this time the German-speaking hijacker told me to tell him everyone who is Jewish. I told him that American passports did not reveal religion. He said, “You mean you can’t tell who’s an Israeli?” I told him there were no Israelis aboard. Then he said, “Pick out all the Jews.” I said, “There is no way I can find this out for you.” Then he says, “Where’s your passenger list?” He made me read the names of the passengers, and Brown was first. He said, “Brown. Go and get Brown.” I said, “Brown, this is not a Jewish name.”
Next was Herzberg, Mr. and Mrs. I shoved Mrs. Herzberg’s passport into another one and put it at the bottom of the pile. She was never called, just him. So the hijacker singled out about six or seven, along with the four military people, and then they lost interest. The other passports were lying all over the place, but they had satisfied their need, and the others were not called.
Then he called Robert Stethem to the first-class section. It’s a night flight now. The hijacker with grenades took off his own shirt and his undershirt, and he took out a razor blade. I started getting very emotional because I thought of throat cutting. All the lights were turned off in the cabin. Only the galley lights were on. Then the hijacker started cutting his undershirt into small strips. He’s blindfolding Stethem. Very tight. And then he takes one of those thick elastic cords from a suitcase cart and ties up his hands, very, very high behind his back and pulls that elastic cord to the very end. Stethem’s hands immediately turn white. Then they drag him to the cockpit door and they are beating Robert Stethem with the armrest they ripped off the flight engineer’s seat. They were jumping in the air and landing full force on his body. He must have had all his ribs broken. I was sitting only 15 feet away. I couldn’t listen to it. I put my fingers in my ears. I will never forget. I could still hear. They put the mike up to his face so his screams could be heard by the outside world. When they were finished, one of the hijackers picked him up like a cat picks up its kitten and dragged him over to a seat.
Then they called for Kurt Carlson, and they did the same thing to him. While they were doing that, I found two other carts and dumped the elastic bands in the garbage. And I pushed the razor blade into the garbage.
Now I’m telling…I’m telling Bob—Robert Stethem—to hang on. He was in tremendous pain. His arms had lost all feeling. I kept saying to this German-speaking hijacker, “Can I not untie his hands? We’re cooperating with you. Why are you doing this to those people?” He said, “No. Leave him alone. He’s just an American pig.” I kept asking, please. Then he let me untie his hands. It took me five minutes, the elastic was so tight. There was a carving knife hidden in the galley, but I didn’t want to bring it out to cut the cord. Then the hijacker told me to take him to a seat in coach. I’m lifting this man over passengers. He was hurt very badly.
When they were finished with Carlson, they said, “Now you can serve your food.” They told me I could go feed the passengers omelets, after all this. They let me call the other flight attendants to help me. The omelets were horrible-looking. Nobody wanted to eat them. And this was the first food we had for 12 hours on the plane. And then the hijackers came up to me and said, “Which way is east?” They wanted to pray. They have almost beaten two people to death, and now they want to pray. They took paper towels from the bathroom and put them down in the first-class section. They wanted to pray on a clean floor.
After that, I was sitting down, and they asked me if I would sing. And I said, “What do you want to hear?” I was trying to keep them out of the cockpit as much as possible. At first I sang them Brahms’ Lullaby, and then the German version of Patty Cake, Patty Cake, the children’s song. That gave me a clue that they may even have children of their own. I sang Lili Marlene, but they really wanted to hear songs by a German singer named Freddy, who sings about being homesick. When I sang Heimatlos, or “without a country,” one of the hijackers said, “That’s just like the Lebanese people.” It was the first time I saw him show any real emotion. I thought about the movie Playing for Time. So I’m singing to him in German. This is morbid. This is horrible.
And we talked. They talked about the Bible and the Koran. They know the religion inside out. He said, “The world will be Muslim, you know, we will all be Muslim.” And I said, “No, this cannot happen.” And I asked them what they wanted. They said the Israelis must free 700 of their prisoners. I said I didn’t believe it could be done. Later, when I went back to the cabin, I whispered to some of the passengers that they wanted 700 of their people freed by the Israelis. Their first reaction was, “Oh, shit.” We never thought it would happen.
At one point, when I was singing to them, one of the hijackers, the one who didn’t speak German, told the other one that he’d like to marry me. The German-speaking one told me that it was just a joke, but I wasn’t too sure. I tried anything to get him off the subject. Finally, it worked. But later I sat on a flight attendant’s jump seat and put my head in my hands and cried. I never thought I would see my 7-year-old son or my husband again.
After that, when we were getting close to Beirut, they started beating Suggs. They stood him up in first class with his arms tied behind his back so he had to bend over, and they hit him. They said, “You American pig, just because you’re big you think you’re strong. You’re stupid.”
I’d had enough. I was sitting right across the aisle, and I got up and said, “This is enough. Stop it right now.” I grabbed the hijacker who was beating Suggs—he was pulling his gun out—and told him to stop. They’re Muslim, they don’t like to be touched by women. And I said, “We are cooperating. We are doing everything you want. Stop it right now.” I’m putting myself between Suggs and the hijacker. I took Suggs and put him back in his seat. I pushed the hijacker away. It stopped him. I think it was the most awful thing I’ve experienced in my whole life.
When we went to land, the airport at Beirut was barricaded and the tower wouldn’t let us land. I told this to the hijackers, and they got mad. One of them shouted, “We are landing, we are coming in.” He told Captain Testrake to circle around the airport until his fuel ran out, then come in for a landing. The captain turns around and says to me, “Uli, you must be prepared for the worst. Prepare the passengers for an emergency landing.” And I am getting hold of Phil’s, the co-pilot’s, arm, and I said, “Can you land on grass?” And he said, “If we find the bloody airport, I’ll land anywhere.” But he doesn’t know the mountains around him. It could be a water landing, it could be a rooftop or a mountain. I was sweating blood. It was one of the worst times for me. The landing gear is down. The captain is making one low circle over the airport, going on his instinct. I thought I was going to die. And I got very calm. It’s amazing when you make up your mind that you’re going to die.
The landing gear is down a long time, the engines roaring. The hijacker suddenly insists there are people in the tower. The captain says no. The hijacker says yes, and that makes me very suspicious. Later I realized he knew Amal had taken over the airport.
Suddenly—I’m looking out my half-open window shade though they were all supposed to be down—I see blue taxi lights. At that moment the airplane pulls up into a steep bank. Sweat is just running off me. The captain just realized he was in no position to land, and he’s making a big come-around, and he comes on the PA as cool as can be and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, it will be a normal landing.”
After the landing there was dead silence. The hijackers also had a message they made me give on the PA system. They told me to say there would be a noise after we landed, but they should stay in their seats. By this time I was sitting way in the back of the plane, in the last row of coach. The hijackers didn’t want me in first class. The curtain to first class had been pulled so nobody could see what was going on. Then they shot Robert Stethem. A few minutes later one of the hijackers walked down the aisle singing. It was in Arabic, but I’ve never heard a tune like it. It was quite an emotional song, you could tell. I think it was a victory song. I sat across the aisle from another flight attendant, and I said, “They just shot one. They just shot one.” And that’s all I said.
We’d been on the ground for about 10 minutes when I heard this tremendous noise from the back of the plane. I had my head down like all the other passengers, but I saw a lot of legs running by my seat. I tried to count the legs to see how many people were coming on board. All I could see was military fatigues. They were running right by me, loaded with weapons. I thought, “The Israelis have come to save us!” And I’m lifting my head, you know, to look, and this one guy that’s running by just gives me a real big swack on my head, in my neck to go down. It was the Amal militia. They were everywhere. There was no way out.