Uli Derickson, 60, a flight attendant who in 1985 displayed remarkable courage dealing with terrorists as they threatened passengers aboard a hijacked international flight, died Feb. 18 at her home outside Tucson. She had cancer.
Ms. Derickson was the lead flight attendant on TWA Flight 847, which was carrying 152 passengers and crew members on a flight from Athens to Rome on June 14, 1985. Just after takeoff, two Lebanese gunmen commandeered the plane and started it on an odyssey of terror and brutality through the Middle East.
The violence was immediate. Ms. Derickson took a karate kick to the chest from one of the hijackers and was kicked again. One of the hijackers forced her to go with him into the cockpit, while the other -- holding a grenade with the pin removed -- started kicking open the door. Once inside, the terrorists pistol-whipped the pilot and flight engineer.
The hijackers spoke no English, but, as Ms. Derickson found out, one spoke German, as she did. This put her at the center of the drama for the next 55 hours as she translated the tense communication between the plane's crew and the hijackers. The plane was diverted first to Beirut, where Ms. Derickson successfully pleaded with the hijackers for the release of 17 elderly women and two children.
After those released slid down the escape chute, the plane took off again, headed for Algiers, while the hijackers pressed their demands for the release of hundreds of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. En route, the hijackers forced Ms. Derickson to collect the passports of all on board and demanded that she identify the Jews. She told them that the passports did not indicate religious preference and found ways to shield certain names from the hijackers.
In Algiers, a dispute broke out between the cockpit and the ground crew, which wanted money for fuel. The hijackers threatened to kill one passenger every five minutes if the plane was not fueled.
"I asked for permission to go to my purse," Ms. Derickson wrote in People magazine, "and I got out my card and gave it to them. They put 6,000 gallons of jet fuel on my Shell credit card, about $5,500 worth."
The hijackers beat three U.S. military men on the flight: Navy divers Robert Dean Stethem and Clinton Suggs and Army Reserve officer Kurt Carlson.
After the plane landed in Beirut, Stethem was shot to death and his body was dumped on the tarmac.
The hijackers then renewed their beating of Suggs, vowing to kill him. As Suggs later recounted, Ms. Derickson put herself between him and the hijackers and screamed at them: "Enough! Enough!" before they relented.
Islamic militiamen boarded the plane in Beirut to assist the hijackers. Some time later, the plane was airborne again and heading toward Algiers. Ms. Derickson, the other flight attendants and many of the passengers were released. But 39 American men were flown back to Beirut, where they were held for 17 days. They were finally exchanged for 31 of the more than 700 prisoners the hijackers had sought.
Life was less than peaceful for Ms. Derickson after the hijacking. She returned to her New Jersey home with her husband, Russell, a retired TWA pilot, and her son, Matthew. But unfounded reports that she gave the hijackers names of Jewish passengers on the flight brought threats from extremist groups. When the truth about her efforts to shield Jewish passengers was verified, she received threats from others. The family relocated to Arizona.
Ms. Derickson was born in what is now the Czech Republic. She and her parents, who were German, were expelled in 1945 and sent to East Germany. They escaped to West Germany a few years later.
After moving to the United States in 1967, Ms. Derickson was an au pair before she went to work for TWA. She resumed flying with TWA soon after the hijacking, retiring in the late 1980s. After working briefly in real estate, she found she missed flying and joined Delta Air Lines in the early 1990s. She continued working, mostly international flights, until she received a diagnosis of cancer in 2003. Her husband died that year.
Ms. Derickson was a consultant for the 1988 TV movie "The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story," which aired on NBC. She was played by actress Lindsay Wagner in the film, which was nominated for five Emmys.
She also testified in West Germany at the trial of Mohammed Ali Hamadi, one of the hijackers convicted of murdering Stethem. He received a life sentence. She advised TWA, Delta Air Lines and the FBI on crisis management.
Throughout her life, she didn't see herself as a hero.
"They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it," she said.