Hijackers Frustrated, Panicked, Crew Says : Hostage's Killing Tied to Language Barrier

Times Staff Writer

One of the three crew members held captive aboard a hijacked TWA jet for 16 days said he feels partly responsible for the murder of a U.S. Navy petty officer by their fanatical Muslim captors because he was unable to make the hijackers' demands clear while in radio contact with the Beirut control tower.

"Without a doubt, the worst . . . was when the Navy fellow was killed," co-pilot Philip G. Maresca said at a news conference. "I felt responsibility. They (the hijackers) were very frustrated because of their inability to get their demands across and get them satisfied, and I think this is why (the petty officer was killed). They were frustrated and very excited."

Robert Dean Stethem, a Navy diver, was shot to death on June 15, the second day of the hijacking, by one of the terrorists as the Boeing 727 made its second landing at Beirut after a stop in Algiers, Algeria.

Maresca, of Salt Lake City, was handling the radio at the time of the slaying. He said the hijackers grew increasingly angry and frustrated because of their inability to communicate their demands across a language barrier.

Asked if he thought that was why Stethem was murdered, Maresca said, "I believe so. . . . This was definitely the low point for me."

On the plane's first forced stop in Beirut, on June 14, the hijackers savagely beat Stethem while they were demanding fuel from airport authorities. The crew expressed the belief Wednesday that the beating occurred because the two Shia Muslim terrorists were panicked and frustrated and wanted the world to know that they were desperate men.

The crew members said the two well-dressed young hijackers grew increasingly tense when the red and white jet, originally diverted from its Athens-to-Rome run, was forced to fly to Beirut for fuel and had to move off the runway into a confined refueling area at the airport.

"They were very much afraid that something went wrong," the pilot, Capt. John L. Testrake, told a news conference. "That is when they beat especially on the young man to get us to demand fuel quickly. That probably was the diciest part of the whole operation."

The crowded news conference, arranged by TWA in a mid-Manhattan hotel, provided the most comprehensive account so far of events in the cockpit of TWA Flight 847. The crew members told of periods of despair, boredom and hope, punctuated by times of terror. Sometimes there were small kindnesses and good-will gestures from the captors who replaced the original hijackers after the plane landed in Beirut.

None of the flight crew said they witnessed Stethem's murder, which took place beyond a bulkhead in the plane's cabin. Afterward, the hijackers used the plane's radio to announce that there would be another murder within five minutes unless the plane was refueled promptly.

"They reiterated over and over again they could not fail because they could succeed in making it a suicide mission," said the flight engineer, Benjamin C. Zimmermann.

All the crew members told of brutality by the two young Muslim militants. At one point, one of the hijackers tore an arm off Zimmermann's seat in the cockpit and used it as a club to beat Stethem, 23, and another young passenger.

"They'd jump on them with all their weight many times repeatedly," said Testrake. "They did this off and on throughout the first days of the hijacking. They said they did it to draw attention to the fact they were desperate men, determined to have their way, and we should do exactly as they said.

'Jumpy and Nervous'

"They were very jumpy and nervous on our first stop in Beirut," Testrake added. "They wanted us to go directly to Algiers. We did not have the fuel for that. So we diverted to Beirut for fuel. They did not like this. It wasn't in their plan. . . . "

All the crew members said that, in the early stages, they were beaten by the original two hijackers. "They were very hyper at that time," Zimmermann said.

As the plane shuttled between Beirut and Algiers, Algeria, the two hijackers spent much of the time with the pins pulled out of their hand grenades, the crew said.

The crew members were forbidden by their captors to talk and had to communicate with gestures and whispers. "We were a team through all of this," Testrake said. " . . . We had to be very surreptitious in our conversations with each other in making our plans (about) what we would do and not do . . . ."

The crew members said they finally rejected plans for escape because they believed it would jeopardize the other hostages.

All three crew members had great praise for the plane's five flight attendants. Testrake showed the news conference a piece of paper he had picked up from the floor of the aircraft on which he made notes about the stewardesses' performance. He particularly praised Uli Derickson, the stewardess who translated the hijackers' demands in German and who avoided complying with the hijackers' demand that she single out the passengers with Jewish names.

For all of the crew, one thought was paramount: survival. Throughout their long ordeal, crew members worked to gain as much control of their captors as possible. Soon after the hijackers burst into the cabin, the crew told them firmly that certain duties had to be performed while the plane was being flown.

But flying was not an easy task. "They (the hijackers) did not want us to talk with each other. They did not want us to talk with air traffic control . . . It's tough to run an airliner if we don't talk to anybody, so we had to be surreptitious. . . ."

At times, the tension in the cockpit was matched by terror in the cabin. "The initial two hijackers were brutal, they were absolutely brutal," flight attendant Helen M. Sheahan said during a separate news conference in Washington on Wednesday. "I was absolutely terrified of them. I tried to avoid eye contact with them. When we were ordered up to serve, I don't know where I found the legs to get up.

"The second landing in Beirut was the most terrifying experience in my life. It was dark. We had to keep our heads down. I was in an aisle seat and I felt at any moment that my head was going to be chopped off."

Once the plane was on the ground in Beirut and the passengers were split up and taken to separate hideouts by their captors, the crew developed its own routine.

The pilots and the engineer found dealing with the Shia Muslims' Amal militiamen, who took over control of the plane, much easier than with the original hijackers, who soon disappeared.

They also got to know some of their Shia captors. Feelings toward the militants were mixed. There was resentment at being prisoner, but also sympathy because some of the guards went out of their way to be kind. Crew members spent time mechanically maintaining the plane. They napped and exercised by walking down the center aisle--33 paces. Occasionally, late at night, they would be allowed out to jog a bit around the Beirut airport. Once, the guards took the crew for a long walk.

"We could see these people have the same hopes and aspirations as we all do," Testrake said. "They hurt for their country. They see that their country is prostrate and bleeding. They are almost in a hopeless situation. They are people like we are. They don't like their situation. They wish it would end somehow."

But the flight captain drew a sharp distinction between the guards and the original two hijackers.

"The hijackers are a vicious group who should be brought promptly to justice," Testrake said. "I have no sympathy for them. They stole my aircraft, they jeopardized my passengers, they detained us for two weeks. They are a vicious, lawless group."

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