Living with Fear: Part II

updated 08/05/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

"I thought we were all going to die," says flight attendant Uli Derickson, 40, commandeered as a German translator by the Lebanese hijackers who seized a TWA 727 on June 14. "I didn't cry. I prayed. All I could think of was my 7-year-old son. I said, 'Lord, please let Matthew grow up to be a strong and good man.' " For the 153 passengers and crew on board, fear of dying was real: Fourteen hours after the plane was hijacked, the two hijackers killed Navy diver Robert Stethem. Army Reserve Maj. Kurt Carlson was severely beaten. Navy diver Clinton Suggs was spared almost certain death when Derickson intervened. The ordeal was also punctuated by a crazy whipsaw of emotion: After savagely beating Stethem, the hijackers ordered Derickson and the other flight attendants to serve warmed-over omelets, then they prayed facing East, kneeling on paper towels. Now in the last installment of her dramatic story, Derickson tells Assistant Editor Jim Calio what happened after the Amal militia stormed the plane in Beirut during her final hours on board.

It was like an invasion. When the Amal ran into the plane, I thought, "Well, we've missed our chance to overpower them. There are too many." Once on board they tried to reassure everyone that they would not kill us. One guy—we nicknamed him the "Pamphlet man" or the "Propagandist"—walked up and down the aisle, saying, "We're not here to hurt you. We are human beings, like you. It is the American government, not you. We will not hurt you."

Each one had a tattoo, an "A" on his left upper arm, and they were very heavily armed. They had machine guns, ammunition belts and knives in their boots. And all of them had revolvers. They set up a camp, as I called it, in the first-class section.

I thought they'd all be crummy, horrible looking, you know, but they weren't. They were all well groomed. Some were even handsome; all were young men. One guy came on board with a khaki-colored T-shirt that said "AIRBORNE" in English across the top and below that, "DEATH SQUAD." Some of them looked like they'd been up a long time. Their eyes were bloodshot, and one guy in particular looked very frightening. His eyes were bulging out and were very red. He was the really scary one. Before the Amal came on board, the two hijackers had tried to get the flight crew to take some pills called Re-Activa [an amphetamine]. I think it was to keep us awake—the label was in German—but the crew tricked the hijackers by secretly spitting them out.

Some of the passengers were taken off the plane. I didn't see Clinton Suggs anymore, so I assumed he was off. And Kurt Carlson, the man they beat up after Robert Stethem. I didn't know where he was. Later, when I did a passenger count, I knew he had been taken off too. They took Mr. Herzberg to a seat behind me and interrogated him. "I'm German," he said. Then the hijackers said, "Well, speak German." And Mr. Herzberg said, "I'm of German descent," and they knocked him over the head and walked him down the stairs with the others they were taking off the plane. I'll never forget the look in his eyes. It was desperation.

The hijackers had promised me that they would let me off in Beirut, but we sat on the Tarmac for a long time. I looked out once and saw about 200 militia surrounding the airplane. The German-speaking hijacker told me they had received word that the Israelis were going to attack from the sea. "For every man of ours who dies by the Israelis, we'll shoot one passenger," they told me. I didn't ever think the Israelis would come. Then we took off, again for Algiers, but we didn't know at first where we were going. They had brought on a big box of aspirins—about 500 pills—and they let us give one to anyone who wanted it. And water. Big bottles of water. Sandwiches. Oranges. I couldn't eat. I didn't sleep or eat, except oranges, for two and a half days. I lived on water and adrenaline, a good diet. But I had to remind everyone that the toilets were full. I mean to the lid. It was indescribable. You didn't take a breath while you were in there.

There were now a dozen of them on board, the two hijackers plus 10 Amal militia. The hijackers stayed pretty much to themselves in the first-class section, but the Amal sat with us in the back and chatted with the passengers. I stayed in the back too, because they didn't need me to translate anymore. Some of the Amal spoke English.

They told us they were shopkeepers. One was a jeweler, one ran a souvenir shop, another had a car agency. I never could get used to the fact that here were guys who had legitimate businesses during the week and were now guarding us on a hijacked airplane. One of them tried to strike up a friendship with a young woman passenger. I wouldn't say it was exactly a flirtation, but he did smile at her a lot. He told her she would look better if she had her head covered, as Muslim women do. Then he brushed her hair with the muzzle of his machine gun. She broke into tears.

Earlier one of the original hijackers had offered our cockpit crew cigarettes. The captain said the crew didn't smoke, and the hijacker said, "What is this with you pilots? My two Middle East pilot friends don't smoke either." They have friends who are airline pilots! My God! That's why they are so dangerous. They can infiltrate any group, anywhere. One of the hijackers told me that they had people in Europe—all over Germany—and even in America. He said that their ultimate goal was to blow up the White House, like they did the Marine barracks in Beirut. They wanted to drive a truck into the White House and blow it up. The hijacker said, "We have enough ammunition in the United States to do it. And we have enough contacts."

When we got to Algiers, about 9 a.m., we taxied to a remote corner of the airport and just sat there. I had been hearing a lot about Ali Atwa, the third hijacker who had been left behind in Athens and later arrested at the airport. The Amal assured me that when he arrived in Algiers, they would let me off. One of their demands was that the Greek government free him, and they did. But it was a long, long wait. Now I was getting very emotional. I'm very nervous. On the one hand, I was thrilled to be getting off. I just want to see my husband and son. But I was also leaving behind a planeload of passengers. It made me sick to my stomach.

While we were on the ground, they began calling the male passengers up to the first-class section, then the women. I got nervous. I didn't know what was going on. It turns out they were stripping everyone of all money and jewelry, very carefully going over everything. Watches, necklaces, rings, anything they had. They especially wanted money. They said they needed cash. They made the women take off their own earrings because they don't like to touch or be touched by women. One woman saw what was going on. She had a mink jacket in the overhead that she had bought in Athens. She was just determined they wouldn't get that mink. Also she took off her jewelry and handed it to the woman next to her. When she came back to her seat, she put her jewelry back on. I stalled them and kept my necklace with the family heirloom stone, although later the Amal asked for my purser's wings.

It was getting very hot on the ground as we waited. The cockpit crew had been moved back to the first-class section, and the Amal had taken over the cockpit. The windows were open, and it was the coolest part on the plane. Then they brought on our first hot food. Chicken and rice. I must say it was very good. We served the passengers and even the Amal. They were very polite. "Please" and "thank you." Very polite. Incredible.

Finally when Ali Atwa got to the airport, they told me I could go. I still had on my apron, but I'd put my jacket on over it. I wanted to walk off in full uniform. But before I went I was called to the cockpit. I was very nervous. I didn't know what was going to happen. When I got there, the German-speaking hijacker was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, very relaxed, his feet up on the instrument panel. He had a 357 Magnum in his hand and he waved it at me to sit down. He said, "I want you to sing some more for me." He wanted some more songs by the German singer Freddy—the songs about people who have no home. He made me sing the same songs over and over. He almost has tears in his eyes. He does not break down, but this is the first time I see him show his emotions. I just want to get out.

Then I'm told to get off the airplane, very quickly now, very quickly. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I turned to this one guard and asked if they would let the other four flight attendants leave with me. Oh, no, no, no. But I pleaded, and he said, "Wait," and ran up the steps of the airplane and asked someone else. "Okay, okay, we'll let you go," he said, "but not until Atwa is in the terminal." So I got back on the plane, and it was another two and a half hours before he arrived. But then he came and the Amal let me, the other attendants and 10 women passengers go. I asked if I could say goodbye to the cockpit crew, who were still on the plane. They said yes, "but don't touch them." I asked the crew if I could call their families, but before I could get the phone numbers the Amal stopped me. I did manage to touch the flight engineer, Zimmermann, though. I put my hand on his shoulder as I left.

We were greeted at the airport by a lot of press, then we went to the U.S. Embassy. You have to picture it—a beautiful Moorish-style building with a great big gate. There's a beautiful courtyard with a fountain. And there was a big cage with a lovely parrot. As we walked by, the parrot says, "Hi, there, hi, there." And I laughed. I think it was the first time I laughed since the thing began.

We had refreshments with the ambassador's wife, and then we cleaned up a little. We were still wearing our uniforms and were very dirty. The woman with the mink had it with her in a plastic bag. She had got it out. We all applauded her. Then they took us back to the airport for a special flight to London. The immigration people wouldn't let us through at first because we had no identification, but after we explained that it was all back on the plane, they gave in. Then we took off, and the pilot circled the airport. It was dusk, and we could look down and see our plane sitting on the runway. It looked very lonely out there all by itself.

Uli and the other flight attendants arrived in London later that night, and the next day flew back to the U.S. At a press conference at JFK Airport, Uli was questioned by the press, and it was reported—erroneously—that she had singled out Jewish passports for the hijackers. The false report caused further trauma: A Jewish extremist group threatened her and her family after her return to her New Jersey home, causing her to stay elsewhere for two nights. Thirty-nine of Flight 847's passengers and crew were held another 15 days before their release. Two weeks ago Uli returned to work at TWA, making her first flight overseas since the hijacking.

I feel like I was given a second life. After I got back I was with my son on the swing in our backyard, and I was enjoying it so much. And suddenly I realized I almost wasn't able to be here to enjoy it.

I had lunch with some friends from Israel recently, and they said that after you've been through an ordeal like that, you get to add an extra word to your name. The word is haya and it means "life." They said that when they go back to Israel they will have a necklace made up with the Hebrew letters for haya. So now I'm Uli-haya.

From Our Partners