LAWTON, Okla. (AP) - The survivor of a harrowing ordeal aboard a hijacked airliner spoke about his experience at the recent Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame induction banquet.
At the urging of the U.S. Air Force, retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Kurt Carlson co-wrote “One American Must Die: A Hostage’s Personal Account of the Hijacking of Flight 847.” Carlson has since shared his experience numerous times at the Department of Defense School on Terrorism and elsewhere.
A 1970 OCS alumnus, Carlson was a major assigned to the 416th Engineer Command in June 1985. He went to Cairo that month for a pre-deployment site survey for Operation Bright Star, a biennial training exercise.
“On the return trip back home, I ended up on TWA Flight 847,” he said. “I boarded at Cairo, and we had a later flight out of Athens to New York. That flight got canceled, and they rebooked me on a connecting flight from Athens to Rome and then an earlier flight out of Rome. That was TWA Flight 847. I got the last seat.”
Going through security at Athens, he noticed two young men at the wishbone metal detector at his boarding gate. They set off the alarm and threw up their arms as if they’d been captured. The security people had them take their arms down, empty their pockets and go through the detector again. This time they were allowed to board. Carlson thought that was strange, but he had no idea of what was about to occur.
Flying military standby, Carlson was given an aisle seat on the back row of the first-class section. Also on board were six Navy divers on an underwater construction team returning from a mission in Athens. The other passengers were mainly tourists and mostly American.
Shortly after takeoff from Athens, two suspected members of Hezbollah, Mohammed Ali Hammadi and Hassan Izz-Al-Din, hijacked the plane. Flight service manager Uli Derickson was coming out of the galley with a beverage tray when Carlson heard a pounding sound in the aisle. The same two men he’d seen in the terminal went racing by. One leaped up in the air and drop-kicked Derickson in the chest. The other one grabbed her by the throat and slammed her against the cockpit door and they spun around.
The hijackers had two large blue satchel bags hanging from their shoulders. One was a net bag full of hand grenades. One hijacker was holding a 9mm pistol to Derickson’s head, and he was screaming, “Americans die! Come to die!” The other hijacker was jumping up and down trying to pull the pin out of a hand grenade but the pin was jammed.
A shaking Derickson notified the pilot by phone what had happened. She became the hijackers’ only means of communication with the others. They spoke no English, but one could speak German, a language she knew well. She was to demonstrate many acts of heroism during the hijacking and probably saved Carlson’s life.
The crew was initially hopeful that the incident would end once the hijackers were taken where they wanted to go, as had happened with another hijacking the week before.
But now the hijackers repositioned all the passengers - men on the window seats, women on the aisles. Everyone had to put their hands behind their heads and their elbows on their knees, down below the seat. One hijacker patrolled the aisle while the other was in the cockpit. Regardless of age or sex, passengers were coldcocked with the butt of the 9mm pistol for making the least sound.
“One more move, one more sound, and we’ll kill you,” the terrorists warned.
The pilot came over the loudspeaker to inform passengers the hijackers wanted to be flown to Beirut. There was enough fuel to make it there, but the hijackers had explosives on the plane and everyone should do what they were told “because suicide was an option for them, and they could blow the whole plane up.”
About an hour away from Beirut, the hijackers began scouring the cabin for anyone who might be with law enforcement.
Carlson whispered to Derickson that he had two passports. His blue civilian passport was in his briefcase overhead and his official red passport was in his sport coat pocket hanging in the closet up front. She risked her life by passing off another passenger’s passport photo as his to protect him.
Then Hammadi discovered the six Navy divers. Four of them had no passports, only green ID cards, and their youthful appearance and short haircuts gave them away. He began screaming at them in Arabic.
“You could tell he had a real hatred for the military,” Carlson said.
Then, in a search of all the storage spaces, the hijackers stumbled across his red passport and immediately demanded to know if a U.S. diplomat was on the plane. Carlson initially remained silent. Then the hijackers threatened to start from the back row and come forward, and if the owner of the passport had not revealed himself by the time they matched him from the photo, he would be killed at once. Carlson had no choice but to stand and identify himself.
“The hijacker came up and he put his 9mm on my forehead and he said, ‘CIA or FBI?’ in broken English. And I said, ‘No, Army Reserve.’”
Derickson slipped in between them and talked fast to defuse the situation. Hammadi turned and marched back to the cockpit.
Nothing bad happened until they got to Beirut. They were running low on fuel, and the Beirut Airport did not want them to land. Wooden barricades had been placed on the runways. The pilot notified the tower they didn’t have enough fuel to go anywhere else and he was going to land anyway. Then he told the passengers there was enough fuel for one approach and if they heard crashing sounds not to worry about it - it was just the wooden barricades.
The tower first negotiated for and won the release of all children and most of the women. Then the hijackers pulled Navy diver Robert Stethem out of his seat and marched him to the cockpit at gunpoint. He was beaten mercilessly with a steel pipe they had torn off one of the cockpit chairs. Stethem never made a sound as he endured the blows and cuts they inflicted. He was then stuffed into a large sack and dumped on the back row.
The next stop was Algiers, where Carlson became another pawn in the hijackers’ quest for fuel. He would later testify at Hammadi’s trial that he was beaten so badly he prayed to die. He prayed for his family, for himself and even for the hijackers.
The tower made excuses while the pilot yelled that an American was in imminent danger of dying. He clicked his mike at Carlson to cue him to scream with each blow so the tower could hear him. The hijackers for their part insisted that Shell Oil Co. provide them with “Arab oil.” Then there was another problem: TWA had no Shell account at Algiers. The pilot was furious, angrily telling the tower the U.S. embassy would pay for it.
Again Derickson stepped in to save the day. She put the $5,500 on her own credit card (and was later reimbursed).
And then it was back to Beirut. En route, Carlson asked Derickson to tell Hammadi he had a wife and baby girl at home. She did, and an amazing thing happened: Hammadi hugged him and said, “Love you, meant not to kill you.” He and Derickson then seated Carlson in the front row of first class. Hammadi told him he too had had a wife and baby girl, but they had been killed in the bombings of Beirut.
This time, the hijackers wanted the pilot to crash the plane into Israel or eastside Christian Beirut. The pilot refused. The hijackers then shot Stethem in the head and dumped his body on the tarmac, where he was shot again. The images made international headlines. The hostages had by now issued a host of demands.
An Amal Shiite militia arranged for the hijackers to be flown to Iran and distributed the remaining hostages among various jail cells around Beirut. People with Jewish-sounding last names were singled out for especially harsh treatment. Despite his poor condition, Carlson received no medical care. He credits the five surviving Navy divers with keeping him alive because he was so broken inside he could do nothing.
After Ramadan, President Ronald Reagan sent the Sixth Fleet into the harbor with guns lowered and an ultimatum: If any more harm comes to the hostages, all 3.5 million inhabitants of Beirut will be wiped out. Suddenly the guards put away their guns and began to show some concern for the hostages.
“We feel that’s what saved our lives,” Carlson said.
Information from: The Lawton Constitution, https://www.swoknews.com
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