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TWA Flight 847 Revisited

May 02, 1988|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

The chic, blond flight attendant stood in the wings of the mock-up TWA plane and peered intently at the actress who was playing her.

Uli Derickson watched as Lindsay Wagner leaned over the seat and gently touched the blood-caked face of the man portraying Robert Dean Stethem, the Navy diver who was beaten and then shot to death, his body tossed onto the tarmac at the Beirut airport, on the second day of the hijacking nearly three years ago.

"What's your name?" Wagner, playing Derickson, whispered.

"Robert," said actor Steven Eckholdt in a barely audible reply.

It was the third week of filming "The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story," a two-hour NBC-TV movie shot earlier this year, which airs at 9 tonight on Channels 4, 36 and 39. Inside Stage 23 at Burbank Studios, the real Derickson, who for four weeks served as technical adviser on the project, turned away and grimaced.

Her mouth tightened--the same kind of look Wagner says she saw when she studied Derickson on videotape. ("The first press conference she did, she had (this) nervous habit," said Wagner later in imitation. "Her tension would be so locked up in her jaws, she'd (grit her teeth).")

That morning, Derickson could not stomach even the simulation of violence. During the filming and refilming of a scene where two Shia Muslim hijackers beat Stethem and other passengers, Derickson had to leave. She took a walk around the studio lot and had a cup of coffee.

"I started to cry and realized I am shaky," she said later. She said she could no longer stand the screaming.

The docudrama depicts Derickson's harrowing two days aboard the TWA plane that was hijacked June 14, 1985, over Athens with 153 aboard--a nightmarish odyssey that shifted from Athens to Beirut, to Algiers, back to Beirut and back to Algiers again. At one point in Beirut, Derickson, the purser or lead flight attendant, ingeniously used her Shell credit card to buy fuel for the aircraft, thereby assuaging the hijackers.

She emerged from the ordeal a heroine: She was credited with intervening with the hijackers to save the life of Clinton Suggs, another Navy diver; with being instrumental in securing the release of 17 women and two children at the first stop in Beirut; with managing to avoid the hijackers' demands that she single out passengers with Jewish-sounding names. Because she was shrewd and--at least outwardly--calm in dealing with the two original hijackers and able to converse with one of them in her native German, she indirectly helped save all their lives--all except Stethem's.

Derickson was among some 60 passengers and flight attendants released in Algiers by Amal militia, who had boarded the plane in Beirut. Other hostages were let go along the way. The last 39 passengers and crew were freed June 30 after two weeks of captivity in Beirut.

"I'm no heroine," Derickson told Jim Calio of People magazine in a two-part, first-person account in August, 1985. "They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it."

From those stories, the docudrama was born. Calio and David Hume Kennerly, former White House photographer during the Ford Administration, are co-executive producers of the Columbia Pictures Television production. They had been looking to do a movie together, and when Calio got his exclusive, he said he called Kennerly, saying, "I think we have one here."

"Today was a rough day," Derickson said over lunch on the Burbank lot. "When I was asked to come here, I talked to the producer, Jay Benson, at great length.

"He has done several docudramas, and he said, 'You might find it hard sometimes to relive what happens. Listen,' he said, 'it happens to the toughest guys. I've done documentaries on Vietnam and even those guys just finally had to leave, break down.'

"I knew it was going to be hard, and for the first two weeks I was able to look at it, saying (to herself), 'Oh, we are in Burbank,' because you see all the unreal things around you, the lighting and the people, and so I felt very good. Well, today we got into the dramatic situation with the beating of the passengers, and I remember on the aircraft that was one of the harder things to have to sit through, to hear the beating of adult men. It's very hard when you hear the screams of someone being beaten. . . .

Derickson is 43 now, and an American citizen. At the time of the hijacking she was a West German citizen, although she has been in the United States since 1967, when she got her first job as a governess. Later that year she joined TWA.

She lives in rural northwest New Jersey with husband Russell, a retired TWA pilot, and their son, Matthew, 9.

Derickson's family had been out to visit the set the week before, and she said with a laugh that her son wants to make movies. She is still flying for TWA, and on a flight to Los Angeles last summer met up once again with John Testrake, the captain of that hijacked flight.

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