TWA Flight 847
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|Date||June 14, 1985|
|Aircraft type||Boeing 727-231|
|Operator||Trans World Airlines|
|Flight origin||Athens (Ellinikon) Int'l Airport|
|Stopover||Leonardo da Vinci Int'l Airport|
|Destination||London Heathrow Airport|
TWA Flight 847 was an international Trans World Airlines flight, which was hijacked by members of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, on the morning of Friday, June 14, 1985, after originally taking off from Cairo. The flight was en route from Athens to Rome and then scheduled to terminate in London. The hijackers were seeking the release of 700 Shi'ite Muslims from Israeli custody.
The passengers and crew endured a three-day intercontinental ordeal. Some passengers were threatened and some beaten. Passengers with Jewish-sounding names were moved apart from the others. United States Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem was killed, and his body was thrown onto the tarmac. Dozens of passengers were held hostage over the next two weeks until released by their captors after some of their demands were met.
The Boeing 727, tail number N64339, was piloted by 58-year-old Captain John Testrake and departed at 10:10 on 14 June 1985, carrying 153 passengers and crew, including flight engineer Benjamin C. Zimmermann, co-pilot Philip G. Maresca, and flight attendant Uli Derickson.
It was commandeered shortly after takeoff by two German-speaking Lebanese men who had smuggled pistols and grenades through the Athens airport security. One was later identified as Mohammed Ali Hamadi, who was later captured and sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany.
To Beirut, then Algiers
The plane was diverted from airspace over Greece to the Middle East and made its first stop, for several hours, at the Beirut International Airport in Lebanon, where 19 passengers were allowed to leave in exchange for fuel. During this time, Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war, and Beirut was divided into sectors controlled by different militia.
That afternoon, the aircraft continued on to Algiers, Algeria, where 20 passengers were released during a five-hour stop before heading back to Beirut that night.
Back to Beirut
Beirut International Airport, surrounded by a Shia neighborhood, had no perimeter security and nearby residents could simply drive onto the runway. During this stop, the hijackers identified a U.S. Navy diver, Robert Stethem, among the passengers. They beat him, shot him in the right temple, and dumped his body out of the plane onto the ramp. Seven American passengers, alleged to have Jewish-sounding surnames, were taken off the jet and held hostage in Beirut.
Algiers, Beirut again
Nearly a dozen armed men joined the hijackers before the plane returned to Algiers the following day, Saturday, 15 June, where an additional 65 passengers were released. It returned to Beirut for a third time, landing on Sunday afternoon, 16 June, and remained there.
The initial demands[clarification needed At what point were these demands made?] of the hijackers 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 Israel in conjunction with Israel's immediate withdrawal from Lebanon; (a pullout had been underway since January and was already virtually complete)
- international condemnation of Israel and the United States
- condemnation of the 8 March 1985, car bombing in the Beirut suburb of Bir al Abed earlier that year.
By Monday afternoon, June 17, most of the hostages had been taken from the plane and held hostage somewhere in Beirut. These 40 remaining hostages were held by Nabih Berri, the chief of the Amal militia and the Minister of Justice in the fractured Lebanon cabinet. One of the hostages was released when he developed heart trouble. The other 39 remained captive until 30 June, when they were driven to Syria. The hostages then boarded a U.S. Air Force C-141B Starlifter cargo plane and flew to Rhein-Main AB, West Germany. Over the next several weeks, Israel released over 700 Shia prisoners, while maintaining that the prisoners' release was not related to the hijacking.
The iconic image of this hijacking was a photograph showing a gun being held to the pilot's head, sticking out of the cockpit window, while he was being questioned by reporters. The scene was staged by a teenaged security guard left by the hijackers to hold the crew after all other hostages had either been released or taken into captivity elsewhere in Beirut. The teenager actually unloaded the gun before staging the scene, as he wanted to be on television.
Flight attendant Uli Derickson was widely credited with calming the hijackers and saving the lives of many passengers. Because her German was the only common language with the hijackers, who spoke poor English, she acted as translator and liaison for most of the ordeal. Notably, she defused a tense situation in Algiers when airport officials refused to refuel the plane without payment by offering her own Shell Oil credit card, which was used to charge about $5,500 for 6,000 gallons of jet fuel, for which she was reimbursed. She also hid the passports of Jewish passengers so they could not be singled out.
Hezbollah specialist Magnus Ranstorp of the University of St. Andrews, credits "leading Hezbollah members Hassan Izz-Al-Din (later involved in the Kuwait Airways Flight 422 hijacking in 1988) and Mohammed Ali Hammadi whose brother was one of the heads of the Hezbollah SSA (Special Security Apparatus). Iran assisting Hezbollah operatives in the "supervision and planning of the incident itself and as an active participant in the defusion and resolution."
On October 10, 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, three of the alleged hijackers, Imad Mugniyah, Ali Atwa and Hassan Izz-Al-Din, having been earlier indicted in United States district courts for the 1985 skyjacking of the American airliner, were among the original 22 fugitives announced by President George W. Bush to be placed on the newly formed FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list. Rewards of $5 million for information leading to their arrests and convictions are still being offered by the United States.
Another of the hijackers, Mohammed Ali Hammadi, was arrested in 1987 in Frankfurt, Germany (then West Germany), while attempting to smuggle liquid explosives, two years after the TWA Flight 847 attack. In addition to the West German charge of illegal importation of explosives, he was tried and convicted of Stethem's 1985 murder and was sentenced to life in prison. However, he was paroled and released by German officials on December 20, 2005, and returned to Lebanon. On February 14, 2006 the United States formally asked the Lebanese government to extradite Mohammed Ali Hammadi for the murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem during the 1985 hijacking. On February 24, 2006, he appeared as well on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list, under the name Mohammed Ali Hamadei. He was among the second group of indicted fugitives to be named by the FBI to the list.
Several news outlets reported the announcement by Hezbollah of the death of Imad Mugniyah in a car bomb explosion in Syria on February 13, 2008. The remaining three fugitives from TWA Flight 847 remain on the list, and at large.
Hezbollah reportedly denies culpability in the TWA Flight 847 attack, among its denials of numerous other attacks which have been attributed to the group. Still, the FBI wanted posters of each of the indicted fugitives alleges their individual membership or leadership role in the organization the FBI names as "Lebanese Hezbollah," which it plainly then calls a "terrorist organization."
- Smith, William E. June 24, 2001. Terror Aboard Flight 847. TIME Magazine. Retrieved: 24 November 2012.
- ASN Aircraft accident description Boeing 727-231 N64339 - Beirut, Algiers, Beirut, Algiers, Beirut
- See Hostage in a Hostage World: Hope aboard Hijacked TWA 847 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985) for Zimmermann's account of this experience.
- New York Sun editorial
- Lebanon Hostage crisis
- Terror Aboard Flight 847 Time Magazine William E. Smith June 24, 2001
- "Hijacking of TWA Flight 847". PBS. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
- Ranstorp, Magnus, Hizb'allah in Lebanon : The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis, New York, St. Martins Press, 1997, p.95
- Lebanon, the hostage crisis
- Terror Mastermind's deception cause for skepticism, CNN.COM, February 14, 2008
- Germany paroles terrorist after 19-year term, MSNBC
- Will Germany Release an American-Killer?, January 27, 2004
- US 'seeks justice' for hijacker, BBC News
- FBI updates most wanted terrorists and seeking information – War on Terrorism Lists, FBI national Press Release, February 24, 2006
- Hezbollah: Top militant wanted by U.S. slain, MSNBC February 13, 2008
- FBI Most Wanted Terrorists at fbi.gov web site
- Top Hezblloah militant slain
- John Testrake, 68, TWA pilot who became hero in hijacking