Would you know what to do in a life threatening crisis? Lead flight attendant Uli Derickson did when terrorists hijacked her TWA flight 847, on June 14, 1985, with 152 passengers and the flight crew on board.
Right after takeoff, two Lebanese hijackers seized this Athens to Rome flight and a frightening, brutal journey across the Middle East began. One hijacker karate kicked Derickson in the chest and as she hit the floor, he kicked her again.
The other hijacker screamed at the pilot, and threatened to blow-up the plane with the grenade in his hand, as he kicked the door in. When he got into the cockpit, he pistol-whipped the pilot and co-pilot and ordered them to fly to Beirut.
En route, the hijackers demanded that Israel release over seven hundred Lebanese prisoners or everyone on board the flight would be killed.
The hijackers spoke very little English but one spoke German, as did Derickson. When they landed in Beirut, she persuaded them to release 17 elderly women and two children.
The flight then headed to Algiers and the hijackers grew angrier at Israel. They told Derickson to collect all the passports and identify the Jewish passengers. She told them passports don’t identify people by religion but she also withheld the ‘Jewish’ names from them.
When the flight landed in Algiers, the plane was nearly out of fuel. The ground crew refused to refuel the aircraft unless they got paid. The irate hijackers screamed they’d kill one passenger for every five minutes the plane waited. In desperation, the co-pilot pleaded with the ground crew but they still refused.
As everyone tensely watched the standoff, the hijackers were about to kill the first passenger. Thinking quickly, Derickson grabbed her credit card and charged 6,000 gallons of fuel, at a cost of $5,500. (A cost Shell Oil later waived) By this action, she saved that passenger and potentially the lives of many others.
The plane then flew back to Beirut. En route, the hijackers bound and severely beat three U.S. military men. When the plane landed, they executed one of them, Robert Stethem, with a bullet to the temple and threw his body on the tarmac.
The hijackers began beating to death another of the military men when Derickson thrust herself in front of him and convinced the hijackers to stop.
In Beirut, a dozen more terrorists came on board. The plane then returned to Algiers. There, the hijackers released most of the passengers and all the flight attendants, including Derickson, who had been at the center of this life and death situation for 55 hours.
The plane flew back to Beirut with 40 U.S. male hostages. One was released because of heart trouble. The other 39 were held until June 30th and then exchanged for 31 Lebanese prisoners released by Israel.
But for Derickson, the crisis wasn’t over. In 1987, Germany arrested one of the hijackers and put him on trial. Many people would’ve been afraid to testify. Not Derickson. She testified and he was convicted of killing Stethem and is serving a life sentence.
Derickson’s remarkable story was shown in a 1988 T.V. movie, “The Taking of Fight 847: The Uli Derickson Story,” starring Lindsay Wagner as Derickson. Derickson flew a few more years for TWA and later flew for Delta Air Lines. However in 2003 she was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 60 in 2005.
But this brave woman left us with a powerful message. Derickson said, “I believe every person has a heart, and if you can reach it, you can make a difference.” Confronted with the most difficult of circumstances, she demonstrated the truth in this statement.
Success Tip of the Week: The next time your boss, a customer, a lender or someone else coldly rejects your proposal, calmly listen to the reasons why. Then with a smile, try to empathize with them instead of attacking them and you might find that middle ground, as Uli Derickson did.
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