The uncertainty surrounding the passengers removed from hijacked Trans World Airlines Flight 847 early Saturday, reportedly because they had "Jewish-sounding names," deepened yesterday when the State Department said it had "no clear evidence" supporting those reports.
"We don't have any clear evidence that people whose names were regarded as Jewish were taken off the aircraft" because of their names, said State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb. "We would find any such act as particularly repugnant," he added.
Officials said they believe that as many as 10 hostages were taken off before dawn Saturday in Beirut.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri has told the administration that "half of the six to 10 are under his control, the balance under the control of the hijackers and their accomplices."
"There are no American Jews, they are all Americans," Berri told reporters in Beirut.
U.S. authorities said they did not know which passengers were in the first group taken off the plane.
TWA purser Uli Derickson said Sunday night that she refused when the armed hijackers ordered her to identify passengers "with Jewish-sounding names.".
A later statement from TWA said none of their employes made such a selection. Spokesman Sally McElwreath said Derickson "had collected the passports at their the hijackers' instruction. But her role in the discussion portion was to discourage him the hijacker from what he was after, Jewish-sounding names. If the name was Herzberg -- a so-called Jewish-sounding name -- she would say no, that's German or that's Swedish."
Derickson, 40, of Newton, N.J., could not be reached for further comment.
Meanwhile, some families of hostages discussed trying to increase pressure on the administration to secure the hostages' release.
"I want to ask anyone that can to call Washington to ask the president to help us," Irma Garza of Laredo, Tex., told reporters in a choked voice. She was released by the hijackers Friday, but her husband, Vicente Garza Jr., 53, remains a captive.
Garza's son-in-law, Robert Trautmann Jr., 47, also is a captive and is listed in the group initially thought to have been taken off for having Jewish-sounding names. He is Catholic.
"We don't get the information we would like to get," said his father, Robert Trautmann Sr.. "We have no idea where he is. No information whatsoever has been given to us."
An aide to Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) calls the family hourly, he said.
Family and friends characterize Trautman, a developer, and Garza, owner of a chain of retail stores, as upstanding businessmen who have helped nurse this border city through a recent depression brought on by Mexico's devaluation of the peso. Garza enjoys taking risks, according to his younger brother, Jorge, and often pilots his twin-engine Piper on business trips.
Their wives and two Trautmann children were released by the hijackers Friday and held a brief news conference yesterday in Laredo.
Jorge Garza noted that family members voted for President Jimmy Carter in 1976 but not in his 1980 reelection bid against Reagan.
"We saw Carter standing there during the Iranian hostage crisis, we thought he was doing nothing," Garza said. "Now look at Reagan. Maybe we were kind of harsh in our judgment of Carter."
Refusing to give his name, a son-in-law of Simon Grossmayer of Algonquin, Ill., said the State Department had told the family only that it could not confirm reports about passengers being removed because of their Jewish-sounding names.
For at least one American family, frustration turned to relief as Arthur Targontsidis was released, along with Greek folk singer Demis Roussos and his secretary, Pamela Smith. Until this morning, although he was on a list of those released earlier, his parents had not heard from him, and the State Department had not confirmed his release.
"I am so happy," said his mother, Eleni Targontsidis of Brockton, Mass. "I only hope and pray that all the other families who are waiting for their loved ones will feel the same way soon." The State Department called her at 7 a.m., she said, and told her that her son would be taken to Larnaca, Cyprus.
In Little Rock, the son of hostage John Palmer Sr., 48, said he has begun an effort to organize the hostages' families to send telegrams urging Reagan to ask Israel to free hundreds of Shiite prisoners as the hijackers have demanded.
Jim Palmer, 24, said his mother, Sammie, 47, a freed hostage, had phoned Monday from Paris and asked him and his brother, John Jr., to begin the project.
On Friday, at stops in Beirut and Algiers, the hijackers released 40 of the original 153 passengers who had taken off from Athens that morning. The hijackers shot one passenger, and Saturday in Beirut they removed those believed to have been singled out for Jewish-sounding names.
Later Saturday, about 66 more passengers -- mostly women and children -- were freed and on Sunday, four more hostages, including an ailing man, were let go. Early Monday, when TWA was reporting that 27 to 29 passengers remained on board, the hijackers removed all the passengers from the plane and took them to undisclosed locations. Three more hostages were released yesterday morning.