TWA purser Ulrike (Uli) Derickson, ending a month of self-imposed silence, said today that racing adrenalin gave her the courage to stop Shiite hijackers from possibly killing a second Navy diver on Flight 847 in Beirut last month.
"I think water and adrenalin is a fantastic diet," Derickson said to laughter on the set of NBC's "Today" show, where she had a sometimes buoyant, sometimes somber reunion with diver Clinton Suggs of Virginia Beach. "It kept me going and I had a good day."
Suggs credits Derickson, 39, with putting herself between him and the terrorists June 15, shortly after they killed diver Robert Dean Stethem and began to shout in broken English, "Another one in five minutes!" One of the hijackers began to hit him with a gun, Suggs recalled in an interview after his release June 30, and "she saved my life. She said, 'Enough, enough.' "
"I'd just come from a week's vacation, I was rested and I think I had an incredible supply of energy that day," said Derickson, who was freed June 16 and returned to face controversy in the United States over her actions.
In a brief interview after her television appearance, she said she felt "burned" by media accounts of her Kennedy International Airport news conference the day she was freed. Some reports failed to make clear that she had not acceded to the hijackers' demand that she single out Jewish-sounding names among the passports she was forced to collect from the passengers.
"It was horrible really," Derickson said. "I just can't understand why they did it -- it's just like the media feeds the terrorists. I didn't know what to do -- this is hard to take for a person like I am, an ordinary person. I've never had that kind of attention. And after I had only six hours of sleep after a 55-hour ordeal."
"Today" anchorman Bryant Gumbel asked Derickson why she had remained silent instead of defending herself against the unfounded allegations that prompted one Jewish group to threaten a protest rally at her home in New Jersey.
"Well, I really didn't have to clear myself," she replied. "I knew what I had done on this airplane. I had a clear conscience, and the responsible leaders of the Jewish group had listened to the tapes again, and they realized the mistake that was made, and so I did not feel it was necessary for me to come out on television or into the media and clarify that."
Flight attendents Elizabeth Howes of London and Hazel Hesp of Greenwich, Conn., joined Derickson and Gumbel in the first half of the 20-minute interview, and Suggs appeared in the second half. But the spotlight remained on Derickson, who began by thanking people "from all ethnic groups" in several countries, the passengers and crew for their support.
At a news conference after their release June 30, and in interviews since their homecoming, the final 39 hostages said her bravery and composure helped ensure their safety.
"I don't want to be a heroine, I just want to be Uli Derickson. And I don't think I was a heroine. I just did what I was trained to do, and I probably had a very good day," she said.
"We could never really outguess the two hijackers, what they were up to -- it was up one moment and down the next. And of course I realized that they were getting ready to murder people because they had told me to make an announcement on the aircraft that there will be an unusual sound after we land in Beirut, that everybody has to stay down, not to move, and that frightened me very much.
"So I guess I just pulled myself together and thought, this has to stop," Derickson said, recounting the moments before Stethem was shot in the head and his badly beaten body was dumped by the terrorists on the pavement at the Beirut International Airport during the hijackers' second stop there.
Beaming at Derickson and at one point squeezing her hand, Suggs, 29, picked up the story.
"At the time, things were getting really out of hand after the shot . . . . They just came right back after me and she stepped in -- I could feel her next to me. And if she wouldn't of done that, if she wouldn't have spoke to them in the brief moment that she did, I think I would've been next," Suggs said.
Derickson described the quiet fear that has haunted her since.
"I am not really yet back to reality as such," she said. "To me the hijacking is reality. Being free is still the dream. I find it very hard to walk in the city, for instance, unconcerned -- it's a very eerie feeling."
"Also, I always see some people sometimes that look like some of the hijackers, and that makes me feel very uncomfortable . . . ."
Until last week Derickson had refused requests for interviews. She said today that she had granted an interview July 8 to Stern magazine in her native Germany for the issue published last Tuesday.
People magazine has paid her an undisclosed amount for her two-part, first-person account, which will begin Monday.