It’s hard to imagine what one might do when faced with an unimaginably terrifying situation. Some say that true character is demonstrated when there’s only a split second for one to decide what the right thing is to do, but one does it anyway and that is precisely what happened on Flight 847 over three decades ago when flight attendant Uli Derickson became a household name and a true American hero!
The extraordinarily courageous Derickson helped secure the release of 146 crew members and passengers who fell victim to the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 en route from Athens, Greece, originally bound for Rome, Italy on June 30th, 1985.
What should have a been a pleasant and ordinary trip turned into a harrowing ordeal that lasted over 30 horrifying hours and involved unplanned diversions to Beirut, Lebanon and Algiers, Algeria.
Early in the flight, two men stormed the cabin shouting violently and brandishing grenades. Derickson, like most on board that day, was, at first, inconsolable as she “shook and cried uncontrollably” for the first twenty minutes following what appeared to be a terrorist hijacking. During the 1980’s, terrorists generally planned for and anticipated some sort of negotiation and thanks to the quick thinking of Derickson, they would soon find themselves able to communicate their demands to someone who could engage with them on many levels.
After she regained her composure, Derickson simply asked: “What do you want? Maybe I can help?”(Soon, it was revealed that what they wanted was the release of 700 Lebanese detainees being held in Israel) The two men, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah Muslims, spoke and understood very little English, but one spoke German. Derickson, a native of Germany and the only German-speaker on the crew was immediately thrust into the role of hostage negotiator.
Luckily she was no stranger to dangerous situations. As a young girl escaping from East to West Germany with her mother, she had experienced the terror of “sleeping in haystacks by day, fearful of land mines and soldiers and body guards.”
At times throughout the ordeal, the captors reacted violently toward crew and passengers threatening to execute many of them; while at other times, they were uncharacteristically docile as Derickson, trying to calm them, chatted with them about her seven year-old son Matthew and even sang a German lullaby to one of them per his request.
One particularly tense moment involved a request the two men made of Derickson that she identify the Jewish passengers on the flight manifest. The realization of why they wanted this information made Derickson determined to shield the Jewish passengers from harm. She shrewdly hid their passports to make it harder to ascertain their nationalities.
In one courageous negotiation, when the plane landed in Beirut, Derickson learned that sometimes simply asking repeatedly will render the desired outcome. After requesting the release of women from the plane and being denied, she persisted and subsequently asked for the release of older women and children to which the hijackers acquiesced.
Although at the time, it certainly was not considered humorous, one rather curious thing happened upon a terrorist-planned landing in Algiers. After being denied much-needed refueling by the overly “cost-conscious” ground crew, the quick-thinking Derickson gave the crew her Shell credit card. They accepted her personal card to charge $5500 of worth of jet fuel!
During this horrific encounter that drug on for over 30 hours, the captain and first officer were brutally pistol-whipped while several other passengers were also severely abused. And once, while attempting to intervene, Derickson received some of the painful blows intended for the victim. Though a single life lost is one too many, mercifully, the sole tragic casualty of TWA Flight 847 was that of U.S. Naval man, Robert Stethem, who was also beaten and then fatally shot.
By the time the plane returned to Algiers for the final time, Derickson and the only remaining women were released per her insistence. And a few hours later, all but thirty hostages were permitted to deplane. The final thirty were then returned to Beirut and transferred from one prison to another over a two-week timeframe until they were ultimately granted their freedom from captivity.
It’s impossible to overstate the effect that Uli Derickson’s bravery, dogged determination and quick-thinking had on the lives of 146 passengers and crew members that day. Had someone of her character and courage not stepped in to advocate for her “charges,” things likely would have ended much more tragically.
After hearing the details of this unfathomable terrorist event , we should all stop and take a moment to contemplate the unselfish actions of this amazing woman as we recognize that indeed one person, acting in good faith, can truly make a difference in the lives of others. Some, like Uli Derickson, even change the course of history forever.