By Jerry Cosley
This thoughtful article by Susan Dominus was published on December 25, 2005 in the New York Times Magazine.
Uli Derickson in New York, being debriefed by F.B.I. agents after her release.
In some ways, the first 20 minutes were the hardest, because she couldn't judge how much worse it might get, or how quickly. Uli Derickson had been preparing to serve drinks to the passengers in first class not long after takeoff when two men barreled down the aisle of the plane, screaming in Arabic and waving around grenades. One put the muzzle of a gun to her head. "What do you want?" she shouted. "I am German. Maybe I can help you." Today, perhaps, there would be no conversation, only a paralyzed silence; but in 1985, hijackers had a history of at least making overtures toward negotiation.
These men, Lebanese Shiite Muslims, wanted the release of more than 700 prisoners held by Israel. The flight crew could not help them with that. All the crew could do was take them, as they demanded, from Athens, the departure point of T.W.A. Flight 847, to Beirut and Algiers - rather than to Rome, as planned.
Heroism can happen by chance rather than by choice. The terrorists spoke almost no English, but one spoke German, which meant that Derickson was suddenly responsible for the flight's safety. She was the only crewmember able to communicate with the captors. Derickson was 40, a useful age for a woman dealing with two frenzied men in their 20's - young enough to be pleasing yet nearly old enough to be their mother. Though she cried and shook uncontrollably during those first 20 minutes, when the terrorists pistol-whipped the pilot and co-pilot, they told her she wouldn't be hurt. Their assurance didn't exactly soothe her, but it did give her something she could use.
She worked on accepting her responsibility, her mortality. She started strategizing.
Derickson enjoyed a comfortable married life in New Jersey, but she wasn't soft. As a child, she had faced a different form of terror while fleeing with her mother across the border from East to West Germany, sleeping in haystacks by day, fearful of land mines and soldiers and border guards. Now she was an adult, staring down two wild-eyed, scared young men. "No matter how difficult it was, I always looked upon them as human beings," she later told The Los Angeles Times. "If you don't, you might as well give up."
When the plane made its initial landing in Beirut, she made her first move. She pleaded with the terrorists, Let the women go. The terrorists refused. The older women, then, and the children, she insisted. Amazing what can happen if you ask: they relented. Derickson rounded up the selected hostages and coaxed them down the emergency slide, even as they resisted, too terrified to move. Then it was on to Algiers.
With the terrorists, she later wrote, she realized that communication was her strongest tool. So she talked to them. She talked to them about the Koran. She offered them tea, she commented on the American sneakers one wore, even made them smile. She told them about her 7-year-old son. They looked at her with apparent concern, told her she should be home, surrounded by family.
And she talked to the passengers, reminding them calmly but urgently to do as the hijackers demanded, to stay silent, to keep their heads down. She advocated for the most desperate, the ones who needed the bathroom, or some water, or some more room for a pregnant wife.
The plane landed in Algiers for refueling. The ground crew had no intention of fueling the plane without pay; the terrorists became agitated, threatening violence. Derickson, like a soccer mom on board some minivan from hell, reached into her purse, pulled out her Shell credit card and told them to charge it. They did.
Then back to Beirut. Eleven hours into the ordeal, the real violence started: the terrorists savagely beat a passenger, using an armrest they had ripped free. Then they had Derickson serve everyone dinner: warmed-over omelets.
Sitting beside the hijackers afterward, Derickson started to sing softly, to calm herself down, maybe, or to calm them down: Brahms's Lullaby, a German version of patty-cake. As she sang, the two men relaxed. At times she felt she was gaining control of the situation. The hijacker who spoke German told her his partner would like to marry her. She summoned the kind of smooth but firm demurral used by effective administrators and parents. "This is not the time and place to talk about this," she replied. Then, when they weren't watching, she put her head in her hands and cried.
As the plane neared Beirut, the hijackers began beating a second passenger. Derickson physically grabbed one of the hijackers as he pulled out his gun. "Stop it!" she said, looking straight into his eyes. "Stop it right now." Her singing, her talking, her jokes - it all now hung between them, a fragile filament of human connection she felt they wouldn't deny. Catching some of the blows, she thrust herself between the passenger and the hijackers. They backed away, and she escorted the beaten man to his seat.
Derickson couldn't ultimately save the first passenger, whom the terrorists shot dead after they landed in Beirut. (Before they did, they moved Derickson out of their lines of sight, perhaps to spare her or perhaps to spare themselves her judgment.) From there, the plane went back to Algiers, where the hijackers, after 32 hours of terror, finally released Derickson, who insisted that she take with her the flight attendants and 10 of the remaining women on board.
Later that day, almost all of the passengers were released, with the exception of some 30 hostages who were flown back to Beirut and, over the next two weeks, shuttled from prison to prison and gradually released. (One hijacker has never been captured; the other, apprehended two years later, was imprisoned in Germany and recently released.)
Before finally exiting the plane to freedom, Derickson paused to put on her flight-attendant jacket. Nothing she had endured would stop her from walking off fully composed and in full uniform.
Correction: Dec. 25, 2005, Sunday:
A Lives They Lived essay on Page 59 of The Times Magazine today about Uli Derickson, a flight attendant who negotiated with hijackers during a T.W.A. flight in 1985, includes an outdated reference to one of them. Mohammed Ali Hamadi, who was captured two years later and imprisoned in Germany, was released last week.
This article fails to mention that Uli Derickson passed away in February, 2005.