One morning last June, just before he was to leave for school, 7-year-old Matthew Derickson was told by his father, Russell, that his mother, Uli, was one of the crew aboard TWA Flight 847 which had been hijacked by terrorists hours earlier. Russell cautioned Matthew not to discuss the hijacking at school, and the little fellow set off for his classes. All morning he seemed distracted, and when his classmates ran outside to play during recess, a downcast Matthew stayed behind in his chair. “What’s the matter, Matthew?” his teacher asked.
“There’s something I have to tell you, but I’m not supposed to,” the boy said. “My mom is on that flight everyone is talking about on TV.” The news caught the teacher off guard but, as she later told Matthew’s mother, “I knew this child needed an answer so I said, ‘Matthew, if your mother is on that flight, then everything will be okay.’ ”
That reassurance was enough to help Matthew through the afternoon, but it was days later that his teacher—and the rest of the world—found out just how much of a difference Uli Derickson’s presence on Flight 847 made. The only crew member who could communicate with the hijackers in a common language—German—Derickson became the link between the terrorists and the 152 passengers and crew. For two tension-racked days that saw the murder of Navy diver Robert Stethem and the brutalization of many, Derickson proved the savior of a few and a source of solace and hope for all. Her heroism ennobled the year.
Although, like all flight personnel, Derickson had been trained how to behave during a hijacking, techniques not taught in the classroom often proved most effective, such as her feeling for the importance of maintaining eye contact. “I believe every person has a heart,” she explains, “and if you can reach it, you can make the difference.” Then, too, there is courage. “It’s a trait you don’t even know you have until you face a situation,” says Derickson. “I didn’t think I had guts, but I know that I am not a helpless person.”
Indeed, even in the weeks immediately following the ordeal, Derickson required little psychological support. “I had one bad dream,” she says. “I saw the hijackers on my porch. I just got myself wide awake and said, ‘This is just a dream. Go back to sleep.’ ”
More difficult to overcome has been the anxiety that is triggered every time Derickson encounters a dark, bearded, Middle Eastern-looking man. “When I see somebody in the airport who has that profile, I am very uneasy,” she admits. She often thinks about the fate of the terrorists but refuses to reveal her feelings, saying only, “That’s something I don’t go into with anybody.”
For the most part Derickson has enjoyed her post-hijack fame, which has brought with it everything from a veterans organization’s Silver Cross for Valor (she’s the first woman to receive it) to a stint as a presenter on the Emmy awards. She thinks it has also created a greater respect for flight attendants and the awareness that “We’re not just there to pour a cup of coffee.”
Nevertheless, she now “yearns for peace and quiet.” She has taken a three-month leave of absence from TWA in order to spend more time with her family, especially Matthew, who has made his mother promise that she will no longer fly to the Middle East. “I want to get him back to a feeling of security,” says Derickson. There’s an upcoming TV movie, but Uli has put a halt to any more talk about the hijacking. “Life goes on and I’m going to try to put 847 on the back burner,” she says. “This is the year it happened, and this will be the year we finish with it.”