The summer of 1985 was quite eventful as I remember it. One of the hottest summers on record in southern California. Sean Penn and Madonna were engaged to be married. Coca-Cola Company was forcing the New Coke on us as the original recipe had been stolen. The city of Los Angeles was terrorized by the Night Stalker. Everyone anticipated tuning into the largest ever simulcasted concert event, Live Aid. Yet at the beginning of that summer, another major world event was making headline news. An event that impacted the dynamics of global politics and inspired the increase in terrorism. The highjacking of Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 847.
The Airline Industry of 1985
To this day, 1985 remains one of the deadliest years in aviation history for aviation disasters, including the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 (520 people killed), the bombing of Air India Flight 182 (329), the crash of Arrow Air Flight 1285 (256), crash of Aeroflot Flight 7425 (200), the crash of Iberia Airlines Flight 610 (148), Delta Air Lines Flight 191 (137), Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 (70), and British Airtours Flight 28M (55), a mid-air collision between Aeroflot Flight 8381 and a Soviet Air Forces transport aircraft (94), the hijacking of Egyptair Flight 648 (60), and various crashes and other incidents with under 50 fatalities. August 1985 remains the worst single month for commercial aviation fatalities in history; a total of 2,010 people were killed in commercial aviation accidents in 1985; the second highest in commercial aviation history since 1942; only 1972 had more fatalities (2,373).
During the spring of 1985 pressure had been building as the airlines were dealing with employee strikes. United Airlines pilots were on strike for 29 days, machinists at Alaska Airlines graciously took an entire two months to settle their agreement and Pan Am took 47 days to end the strike of transport workers.
The one airline that was feeling the heat, was the once Howard Hughes led airline, Trans World Airlines (TWA). The rumors circulating among the airline industry that, corporate raider, Carl Icahn, was going to do a hostile takeover of TWA, angered its employees. The only thing that wasn’t falling apart at TWA was the marketing department. I remember that year they dropped the “You’re Gonna Like Us” slogan and changed to “TWA, Leading the Way”. In addition to the company getting hijacked by Carl Icahn, flights were frequently getting overbooked, Airline workers were under a tremendous amount of stress as they had been overworked, underpaid and stuck dealing with problems at every level.
The Rise of Terrorism
Thousands of miles away from the airline strikes in the U.S., The Israeli military had been at war with southern Lebanon making their strikes of violence. The action between Israel and Southern Lebanon was intense. In February of 1985, Israel withdrew from Sidon and turned it over to the Lebanese Army, but faced brutal attacks. 15 Israelis were killed and 105 wounded during the withdrawal. Dozens of South Lebanon Army (SLA) members were also assassinated. From February through March, the Israelis lost 18 and 35 were wounded. In early March, Israeli forces raided the town of Zrariyah, killing 40 Amal fighters and confiscated a great deal of arms. During the second week of April, a Shiite girl drove a car bomb into a “Tzahal” (Israel Defense Force) convoy, and the following day, a soldier was killed by a landmine. During that same period, Israeli forces killed 80 Lebanese insurgents in five weeks. Another 1,800 Shi’as were taken as prisoners. Israel withdrew from the Bekaa Valley on April 24th, and from Tyre on the 29th, but continued to occupy a security zone in Southern Lebanon.
These acts of violence that bantered back and forth inevitably culminated in a strategic plan of terror. A plan that would attract a world-wide audience. Thus, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean sea, Hezbollah was founded. The “Party of Allah” is a Lebanese based Shia Islamist political party. The theocratic organization was comprised of several different groups of Islamists from several countries. The group was then funded by donations from the Muslim community, Islamic diamond dealers and Lebanese businessmen. The party swore in alleged members, Hasan Izz-Al-Din, Ali Atwa, and Mohammed Ali Hamadei and sent them to carry out a jihad.
Jihadists are usually quite intelligent and strategically plot out acts of terror in a way that will draw global attention. They operate in full preparation to die in the name of Allah. Their main goal? To convert the entire world to Islam. These three young men knew that the Greek government, at the time, was weak and security was lax at the airport in Athens. TWA was the main carrier of passengers from the Middle East through Europe and west to the US. Flight 847 originated in Cairo. The stops were Athens, Rome, then on to U.S. cities, Boston, Los Angeles and terminating in San Diego. The Athens-Rome leg of the flight was sufficient enough for them to carry out their mission as they knew it would be packed with Americans. And since the United States of America was the main ally of Israel, Americans were the target.
On June 13th, 1985 the shadowy Amal and Hezbollah members, Hasan Izz-Al-Din, Ali Atwa, Mohammed Ali Hamadei, Ahmed Karbaya, and Ali Yunes entered the geopolitical Black Hole or otherwise known as the Transit Airport Lounge, in Athens, Greece. They purchased tickets for TWA’s flight 847 bound for Rome, Italy. At the lounge, they took the time to carefully wrap their weapons in fiberglass and packed them into nylon bags.
On the morning of June 14th, 1985, 139 passengers made their way through security at the Athens International Airport to catch the 10:10 AM flight. Among them were Mohammed Ali Hamadei and Hassan Izz-Al-Din. The terrorists cleverly used the weak link in Greek Airport Security and entered through the transit lounge at the airport. Which means that they did not go through a security check or proper passport control. The two neatly dressed and well-groomed terrorists cooly boarded the plane carrying their weapon packed bags.
Approximately 20 minutes after take-off, the two terrorists, Mohammed and Hasan rose from their seats and ran up the aisle screaming to passengers that they were commandeering the aircraft. Hasan approached the lead flight attendant, Uli Derickson, looked her in the eyes and kicked her to the ground. She calmly stood up and told them that she would be compliant with their requests. In the dialogue exchange, she realized that Mohammed spoke German. Behind the Iron-Curtain, Uli was born in Czechoslovakia. She had worked and lived in East Berlin during the cold war before becoming a German-American citizen. The lead flight attendant wasn’t a timid and unexperienced woman by any means. She had lived in Eastern Europe, spoke several languages and was quite intelligent.
Back on the ground, the revered terrorist, Ali Atwa, had missed the flight due to the common overbooking of flights. He made violent threats to the TWA gate agent. The agents called security and he was detained by Greek law enforcement.
Back up in the air, Hasan carried a hand grenade with its pin pulled and Mohammed a 9-millimeter pearl-handled automatic pistol. Mohammed and Hasan began to kick the locked door of the cockpit. Inside were pilot, John L. Testrake, Christian Zimmermann, the flight engineer, and Phil Maresca, the first officer. The pilots covertly alerted the air tower operators. Uli pleaded with the cockpit crew to open the door.
Pilot John Testrake was a Christian man. He was a native of Ripley, N.Y., who joined the Navy right after high school at the end of World War II and later served as a flight engineer in the Korean War. As a lifelong aviation enthusiast, he had spent more than 30 years flying domestic routes for TWA. He was married to his second wife, Phyllis, who was waiting for him on June 14, 1985, when he took off from Athens for what should have been a short hop to Rome.
The flight engineer opened the cockpit door. Immediately Hasan repeatedly struck him and the first officer with his pistol. Uli was held at gunpoint to accompany Mohammed into the cockpit to translate orders to the crew. The captain’s radio transmissions were broadcast around the world. He followed the hijackers’ orders when he had to, but thought nothing of scolding them when they made demands he felt would endanger the flight. Initially, the captors requested to be taken to Algiers. But they diverted the plane to Beirut.
During the flight, the terrorists demanded the passports, money, and jewelry from passengers. Aboard the aircraft, three servicemen, Bob Stethem and Clint Suggs, his best friend and roommate in the Navy, and Kurt Carlson, the Army Reserve major, sat quietly as the passports were being collected. They had their military IDs and were nervous about handing them over. They subtly signaled to Uli that they were servicemen. The terrorists took notice and forced one of the servicemen to the front of the plane. Mohammed ordered Uli to look through the passports and separate the passports of Israelis. She informed him that there weren’t any Israelis on the flight. He then asked her to find all the passports of the Jews. She told them that Americans do not identify a citizen’s religion on passports. He then demanded to find ones with German last names. She looked at him and vehemently protested. In 1985, the world was still sitting in the wake of the Holocaust. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. Ironically, early on Mohammed felt a special connection with Uli. He had expressed that she was a special person. He liked the fact that she spoke German and probably assumed that she was German. Most of the terrorists from the Arab world appreciated the holocaust and the torture that Nazis inflicted upon the Jews.
Mohammed filed through the passports, identified the Jews and took several Jewish men with him back up to the first-class area. Beating them and cursing at them up the aisle.
The initial demands of the terrorists included the release of the Kuwait 17, those involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kuwait, the release of all 766 mainly Lebanese Shias transferred to an Israeli Prison in conjunction with immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and International condemnation of Israel and the United States.
Uli did her best to stay in constant communication with the passengers and with Mohammed during the flight. She won the hijackers’ pity for one passenger by explaining that his daughter had been delivered by a Lebanese doctor.
Shortly before landing in Beruit, air traffic control had refused to let them land. Captain Testrake argued with air traffic control until they relented.
He pleaded, “He has pulled a hand-grenade pin and he is ready to blow up the aircraft if he has to. We must, I repeat, we must land at Beirut. We must land at Beirut. No alternative.”
Finally, the runway’s lights illuminated and the plane landed safely.
While in Beruit, negotiations with the hijackers to allow some women and children to be released in exchange for fuel, commenced. Mohammed relented and released 19 women and children.
After refueling, the plane flew to Algeria. The plane made a five hour stop. The hijackers threatened to ‘’execute’’ the remaining passengers unless Israel released the 700 Shiites. The terrorist released another set of hostages; American women, one American child and three people of other nationalities in Algeria.
On the stop in Algiers, Mr. Carlson was moved to the cockpit area where he huddled in the corner, bound, blindfolded and in silence, while the two hijackers kicked him in the head and pummelled his shoulders with an armrest torn from the flight engineer’s chair. The hijackers took Kurt Carlson’s tie to bind Petty Officer Stethem for more rounds of beatings. Slipping in and out of consciousness, Kurt heard the terrorists scream, “One American must die.’’
The hijackers decided to go back to Beirut. The plane took off and headed back per the terrorists’ request. They turned up the heat on the military men and savagely beat them. They physically abused dozens of other passengers, for minor offenses such as failing to keep their heads bowed, and hand-picked others for particular savagery. Uli continued to keep her cool and protect the passengers when she felt she could.
‘’Don’t you hit that person,’’ she would shout, a passenger later recounted. ‘’Why do you have to hit those people?’’ She also intervened during beatings, often putting herself in harm’s way.
Touching down back in Beruit, the saga of torture and terror ended with the murder of Navy construction diver, 23-year-old, Robert Stethem, who was given a bloody beating during the first two legs of the trip, then shot in the head and dumped on the tarmac at Beirut International Airport.
According to John Testrake, the hijackers shot Mr. Stethem in an attempt to convince the Amal terrorist group to join Mohammed and Hasan on board the aircraft and help control a deteriorating situation. When the Amal did not immediately join them after the aircraft landed in Beirut, the Pilot said, the hijackers, frustrated and panicky, ‘’snatched the young man to his feet and stood him in the door and shot him.’’
When it appeared that Clinton Suggs would be shot next, Uli interceded again.
‘’Enough, enough,’’ she said just as a group of several armed Amal militiamen stomped onto the aircraft and took control from the original hijackers.
The gunmen began choosing two five-man groups of mostly Jewish hostages. They moved the 10 men off of the plane and into two small military trucks. The trucks spurted through the thickly humid dark, transporting their tired and frightened passengers to a Shia prison in Beirut.
On the rough drive through the blackness, Mr. Brown took note of landmarks they passed — a fruit market, an elevated highway, a building that turned out later to the house where Lebanese politician, Nabih Berri lived.
Finally, the transports stopped at an apartment building, then drove down into a basement garage. The captives were ordered into a barren 20-by-20-foot underground room. It was to be their prison cell for a week.
The first 16 hours of the ordeal were the most brutal. And now it was behind the remaining hostages and flight crew. The new Amal terrorists ordered the pilot back to Algiers. During that leg, the cruelest of the hijackers, Hasan, asked Uli to marry him. Uli kept Mohammed calm as she sang songs in German to him. A Greek Passenger, Demis Roussos also serenaded the terrorists. They gave him a birthday cake in exchange.
As the plane touched down in Algiers, the pilot alerted the captors that they were low on fuel. When the Algerian ground crew refused to refuel the plane without payment, even when faced with the terrorists’ threat to kill passengers, Uli offered her Shell credit card to cover the $5,500 cost for 6,000 gallons of fuel. For the moments left on her stint of the ordeal, Uli remained in control and demanded that her flight attendant crew and additional hostages be released. Mohammed agreed. She quickly made her way to the front of the aircraft and got a few quick messages from the cockpit crew to get to their loved ones. The heroine, Uli Derickson was released along with the flight crew and 53 additional passengers.
Ali Atwa was released by the Greek officials. He then joined the crew in Algeria. The hijackers wanted to fly to Tehran but for an unknown reason returned to Beirut.
On June 16th a letter signed by 29 passengers appealed to President Ronald Reagan to refrain from any direct military action on their behalf. The Shiite Amal militia moved into the crisis, demanding freedom for more than 700 Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. The terrorists removed the remaining passengers off of the aircraft.
Negotiations to Release Hostages
On June 17th, Amal leader and Lebanese politician, Nabih Berri alerted the NSA that the hostages had been split up to prevent a rescue mission. National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane was informed that Berri ″had in his hands the ability to end the hijacking.″
The following day, the terrorists released Greek singer Demis Roussos, his American secretary, Pamela Smith, and Greek-American, Arthur Targon Tsidis. This was part of the agreement for the release of Ali Atwa who was arrested at the Athens airport.
At a news conference, President Reagan stated that any retaliation ″would probably be sentencing several Americans to death.″ During that conference, Reagan scrutinized the Greek government of weak airport security.
On June 20th, five hostages appear at a chaotic news conference and appeal to Reagan ″at all costs″ to refrain from a rescue mission. The five were Allyn Conwell, 39, of Houston; Thomas Cullins, 42, Burlington, Vt.; Vicente Garza, 53, Laredo, Texas; and Peter Hill, 57, of Hoffman Estates, Ill.
“We as a group do most importantly want to beseech President Reagan, and our fellow Americans, to refrain from any form of military or violent means as an attempt, no matter how noble or heroic, to secure our freedom. That would only cause, in our estimation, additional unneeded and unwanted deaths among innocent peoples. It is also our hope, now that we are pawns in this tense game of nerves, that the governments and peoples involved in these negotiations will allow justice and compassion to guide their way. We understand that Israel is holding as hostage a number of Lebanese people who undoubtedly have as equal a right and as strong a desire to go home as we do.” pleaded Allyn Conwell.
Four days later, Israel released 31 Shiite prisoners, insisting there was no linkage to the hostages in Lebanon. Amal leaders dismissed the gesture as insufficient to bring about the release of the Americans. Additionally, Berri demanded U.S. ships to pull back.
The following day, the British and Italian U.S.allies, sent their ambassadors to meet with Berri. Syrian leaders took a public role in the continued negotiations. White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan was considering forcing Beirut airport to close and blockading Lebanon. Amal gathered all 37 hostage passengers together to meet two International Red Cross officials, and the three crew members were visited separately.
Berri released hostage Jimmy Dell Palmer, 48, who suffered from a heart condition, on June 26th. He also suggested putting the hostages in a Western embassy in Beirut or moving them to Syria, in exchange for the release of Israel’s Shiite detainees.
Two days later Berri held a farewell banquet for most of the hostages at a luxury hotel amid signs that behind-the-scenes diplomacy and Syrian influence had led to an agreement to free them.
On June 29th, the hostages’ release was interrupted by a demand from Shiite Moslem leaders for U.S. and Israeli guarantees that there wouldn’t be any retaliation.
The next day the Americans left for Damascus, Syria in a Red Cross convoy.
Finally, on the 1st of July, the freed Americans departed aboard a U.S. military plane for Frankfurt, West Germany, where they were greeted by then-Vice President George Bush Sr. They were taken to a U.S. military hospital in Wiesbaden, debriefed, and were met by friends and relatives.
As for the terrorists, Hezbollah denied any involvement in the hijacking and hostage situation.
Hassan Izz-Al-Din remains on the FBI’s most-wanted list. It is believed he is residing in Lebanon.
Mohammed Ali Hamadei was arrested in West Germany in 1987 for another crime. He was charged for the murder of Robert Stethem and sentenced to life in prison. He served 15 years and then made parole. It is speculated that his parole was granted as part of a covert prisoner swap, in exchange for the release of Susanne Osthoff. Taken hostage in Iraq a month prior, Osthoff was released the week of Hamadei’s parole. In the mid-2000s, a Bush administration official indicated that Hamadei had rejoined Hezbollah upon his release from the German prison. Pakistani intelligence sources reported Hamadei was killed in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan in June 2010. However, the reports of his death were never confirmed and he remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.
Ali Atwa was never arrested. He is currently thought to be living in Lebanon.
© Gena Vazquez 2020