TWA Flight 847 was a regularly scheduled Trans World Airlines flight from Cairo to San Diego with en route stops in Athens, Rome, Boston, and Los Angeles.[1] On the morning of June 14, 1985, Flight 847 was hijacked soon after take off from Athens.[2][3] The hijackers demanded the release of 700 Shia Muslims from Israeli custody and took the plane repeatedly to Beirut and Algiers.[1] Later Western analysis considered them members of the Hezbollah group, an allegation Hezbollah rejects.

TWA Flight 847
Photo taken in 1987 of N64339, the aircraft involved in the hijacking.
DateJune 14, 1985
SiteGreek airspace
Aircraft typeBoeing 727–231
OperatorTrans World Airlines
Flight originCairo International Airport
1st stopoverAthens (Ellinikon) Int'l Airport
2nd stopoverLeonardo da Vinci Int'l Airport
3rd stopoverLogan International Airport
4th stopoverLos Angeles International Airport
DestinationSan Diego International Airport

The passengers and crew endured a three-day intercontinental ordeal. Some passengers were threatened and some beaten. Passengers with Jewish-sounding names were separated from the others. United States Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered, and his body was thrown onto the airport apron. Dozens of passengers were kept hostage during the next two weeks until released by their captors after some of their demands were met.

Hijacking events


Flight 847 was operated with a Boeing 727–200, registration N64339.[4] The flight originated in Cairo on the morning of June 14. After an uneventful flight from Cairo to Athens, a new crew boarded Flight 847. The new crew in Athens were Captain John Testrake, First Officer Phil Maresca, Flight Engineer Christian Zimmerman, flight service manager Uli Derickson, and flight attendants Judy Cox, Hazel Hesp, Elizabeth Howes, and Helen Sheahan.[5]

At 10:10, Flight 847 departed Athens for Rome. It was hijacked soon after takeoff by two Arabic-speaking Lebanese men who had smuggled a pistol and two grenades through the Athens airport security. One was identified later as Mohammed Ali Hamadi, who was eventually captured and sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany.[6] Hamadi is an alleged member of Hezbollah.[7]

The hijackers assaulted Derickson, breaching the cockpit and dragging her with them before attacking and pistol-whipping Testrake, Maresca, and Zimmerman.

To Beirut, then Algiers


With Captain Testrake being held at gunpoint, the airplane was diverted from its original destination of Rome, in airspace over Greece, to the Middle East and made its first stop, for several hours, at the Beirut International Airport in Lebanon, where 19 passengers were allowed to leave in exchange for fuel.[8] Shortly before landing, air traffic control initially refused to let them land in Beirut. Captain Testrake argued with air traffic control until they relented. When Beirut ATC tried to talk to the hijackers, Testrake interrupted, "He has pulled a hand-grenade pin and he is ready to blow up the aircraft if he has to. We must, I repeat, we must land at Beirut. We must land at Beirut. No alternative."[9]

At the time, Lebanon was in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, and Beirut was divided into sectors controlled by different Shia Amal militia and Hezbollah. That afternoon, the aircraft continued on across the Mediterranean Sea to Algiers, where 20 passengers were released during a five-hour stop before heading back to Beirut that night.

Back to Beirut

Robert Stethem

Beirut International Airport was surrounded by a Shia neighborhood. It had no perimeter security and had been overrun by Islamist militias, and nearby residents could simply drive onto the runway.

The hijackers had systematically and regularly beaten all the military passengers, but during this stop, they selected U.S. Navy diver, Robert Stethem, beat him, shot him in the right temple, and dumped his body out of the plane onto the ramp and shot him again, seeking permission from other Shia Muslims operating the control tower to obtain more fuel. Seven American passengers, alleged to have Jewish-sounding surnames, were taken off the jet and kept captive in a Shia prison in Beirut.[10]

Algiers, Beirut again


Nearly a dozen heavily armed men joined the hijackers before the airplane returned to Algiers the next day, 15 June,[1] where an additional 65 passengers and all five female cabin crew members were released.[11]

The initial demands of the hijackers included:

The Greek government released the accomplice, Ali Atwa, and in exchange the hijackers released eight Greek citizens, including Greek popular singer Demis Roussos, to be flown by a Greek government business jet from Algiers back to Athens.

By the afternoon of June 17, the 40 hostages remaining had been taken from the airplane and kept captive throughout Beirut by Hezbollah.[15] Nabih Berri was the chief of the Amal militia and the minister of justice in the fractured Lebanon cabinet. One of the hostages was released on 26 June when he developed heart trouble. The other 39 remained captive until June 30 when they were collected in a local schoolyard after an intervention by U.S. President Ronald Reagan along with Lebanese officials.[16] The released hostages then met with international journalists and were driven to Syria by the International Red Cross to the Sheraton Hotel and a press conference in Damascus.

The hostages then boarded a U.S. Air Force C-141B Starlifter cargo plane and flew to Rhein-Main AB, Hesse, West Germany, where they were met by U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush, debriefed, given medical examinations, then flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and welcomed home by the president. Over the next several weeks, Israel released over 700 Shia prisoners, while maintaining that the prisoners' release was not related to the hijacking.[2]


Nationality Passengers Crew Total
Australia 3 0 3
France 8 1 9
Greece 15 0 15
Italy 11 0 11
United Kingdom 24 0 24
United States 78 7 85
Total 139 8 147
John Testrake with a hijacker in Beirut  

A famous image of this hijacking was a photograph showing a gun being held near Captain Testrake, sticking out of the cockpit window, while he and the other pilots were being interviewed by ABC News reporter Charles Glass. The scene was interrupted by one of the French-speaking Hezbollah guards left by the hijackers to hold the crew after most passengers and the cabin crew had been released in Algiers, and the remaining men were held in captivity elsewhere in Beirut. The young militiaman may have unloaded the gun before entering the scene, as he primarily wanted to be on television.[3]

Flight attendant Uli Derickson was credited with calming one of the hijackers during a fuel-quantity incident during the first leg to Beirut, because she spoke German, the only European language which either hijacker spoke. Notably, she interrupted an attempt to end the hijacking in Algiers when airport officials refused to refuel the plane without payment by offering her own Shell Oil credit card, which was used to charge about $5,500 for 22,700 L (6,000 gal) of jet fuel, for which she was reimbursed. She also refused to cooperate with the hijackers in identifying for them the passports of any passengers with Jewish-sounding names so they could not be singled out.

USS Stethem, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer commissioned in 1995, was named in honor of Robert Stethem.[17] The aircraft involved in the hijacking was put back into service. It remained in service for TWA until the aircraft was retired on September 30, 2000. It ceremoniously operated the airline's final revenue flight of their Boeing 727 fleet.[18] The aircraft was later scrapped in May 2002. It had first flown on August 27, 1974, and was delivered to the airline on September 5, 1974.[19]

Alleged perpetrators


Hezbollah specialist Magnus Ranstorp of the University of St Andrews credits "leading" Hezbollah members Hassan Izz-Al-Din (later involved with the Kuwait Airways Flight 422 hijacking in 1988) and Mohammed Ali Hammadi, whose brother was one of the commanders of the Hezbollah Special Security Apparatus, with assisting Hezbollah operatives in the "supervision and planning of the incident itself and as an active participant in the defusion and resolution".[14]

On October 10, 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, three of the alleged hijackers, Imad Mughniyeh, Ali Atwa, and Hassan Izz-Al-Din, having been indicted earlier in United States district courts for the 1985 skyjacking of the American airliner, were among the original 22 fugitives announced by President George W. Bush to be placed on the newly formed FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list. Rewards of $5 million for information resulting in the arrest and conviction of Atwa and Izz-Al-Din are still being offered by the United States.

Mohammed Ali Hammadi was arrested in 1987 in Frankfurt, West Germany, while attempting to smuggle liquid explosives, two years after the TWA Flight 847 attack. In addition to the West German charge of illegal importation of explosives, he was tried and convicted of Stethem's 1985 murder and was sentenced to life in prison. However, he was paroled and released by German officials on December 20, 2005, and returned to Lebanon.[20][21] There has been speculation that his parole was granted as part of a covert prisoner swap, in exchange for the release of Susanne Osthoff. Taken hostage in Iraq a month prior, Osthoff was released the week of Hammadi's parole.[22] On February 14, 2006 the United States formally asked the Lebanese government to extradite Mohammed Ali Hammadi for Stethem's murder.[23] On February 24, 2006, he appeared as well on the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list, with the name Mohammed Ali "Hamadei" (sic). He was among the second group of indicted fugitives to be named by the FBI to the list.[24]

Several news outlets reported the announcement by Hezbollah of the death of Imad Mughniyeh in a car bomb explosion in Syria on February 13, 2008.[25] The remaining three fugitives from TWA Flight 847 remain on the list, and at large.[26]

On September 19, 2019, Greek police arrested a 65-year-old Lebanese man who was accused of involvement in the hijacking. The man was arrested at Mykonos during a passport check for cruise ship passengers.[27] He was aboard a cruise ship that had crossed Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos. Mykonos was the last stop before returning to Turkey.[28] He was later released after police determined it was a case of mistaken identity.[29]

Hezbollah reportedly denies culpability in the TWA Flight 847 hijacking, among its denials of numerous other attacks that have been attributed to the group.[30]



See also



  1. ^ a b c d e Smith, William E. June 24, 2001. Terror Aboard Flight 847. TIME Magazine. Retrieved: 24 November 2012.
  2. ^ a b "Lebanon The Hostage Crisis – Flags, Maps, Economy, History, Climate, Natural Resources, Current Issues, International Agreements, Population, Social Statistics, Political System".
  3. ^ a b Terror Mastermind's deception cause for skepticism, CNN, February 14, 2008
  4. ^ "FAA Registry (N64339)". Federal Aviation Administration.
  5. ^ See Hostage in a Hostage World: Hope aboard Hijacked TWA 847 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985) for Zimmermann's account of this experience.
  6. ^ "Thinking of Robert Stethem". The New York Sun. Archived from the original on 2010-06-16. Retrieved 2019-09-22.
  7. ^ Whitlock, Craig (2005-12-21). "Hijacker Sought By U.S. Released". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-04-09.
  8. ^ Berger, Joseph (15 June 1985). "Gunmen Seize Jet in Mideast Flight; Passenger Killed". The New York Times. Vol. 134, no. 46441.
  9. ^ "He's Pulled a Grenade Pin". The New York Times. Associated Press. June 15, 1985. Retrieved May 23, 2015.
  10. ^ "Lebanon – The Hostage Crisis".
  11. ^ Berger, Joseph (16 June 1985). "Hijackers Release Over 60 From Jet in Algiers Airport". The New York Times. Vol. 134, no. 46442.
  12. ^ "Hijacking of TWA Flight 1847". PBS. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
  13. ^ Gwertzman, Bernard (21 June 1985). "U.S. Aides Say Hostage Release Would Free 766 Held in Israel". The New York Times. Vol. 134, no. 46447.
  14. ^ a b Ranstorp, Magnus, Hizb'allah in Lebanon: The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis, New York, St. Martins Press, 1997, p. 95. OCLC 89805638
  15. ^ Rohter, Larry (18 June 1985). "Passengers Taken From Hijacked Jet, Lebanese Reports". The New York Times. Vol. 134, no. 46444.
  16. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (1 July 1985). "39 American Hostages Free After 17 Days". The New York Times. Vol. 134, no. 46457.
  17. ^ "Named for Steelworker 2nd Class Robert Stethem". United States Navy. Archived from the original on November 28, 2013. Retrieved December 5, 2013.
  18. ^ "TWA RETIRES THE B-727". Youtube. ampicoab. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  19. ^ "REGISTRATION DETAILS FOR N64339 (TRANS WORLD AIRLINES (TWA)) 727-231". Planelogger. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  20. ^ Germany paroles terrorist after 19-year term, NBC News
  21. ^ Will Germany Release an American-Killer?, January 27, 2004
  22. ^ "German Hostage Freed in Iraq: Freed Osthoff Not Heading Home Yet". Der Spiegel. December 19, 2005 – via Spiegel Online.
  23. ^ US 'seeks justice' for hijacker, BBC News
  24. ^ FBI updates most wanted terrorists and seeking information – War on Terrorism Lists Archived 2010-01-29 at the Wayback Machine, FBI national Press Release, February 24, 2006
  25. ^ Hezbollah: Top militant wanted by U.S. slain, MSNBC February 13, 2008
  26. ^ "Hijacking of TWA Flight 847". Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  27. ^ "Suspect arrested in Greece over 1985 TWA plane hijacking | DW | 21.09.2019". DW.COM.
  28. ^ "TWA hijacker arrested in Greece after 34 years (photos)".
  29. ^ Elinda Labropoulou, Nada Altaher and Evan Perez (22 September 2019). "Greek police release TWA hijacking suspect and say it was a case of mistaken identity". CNN. Retrieved 2019-09-30.
  30. ^ "Germans release Lebanese hijacker". 2005-12-20. Retrieved 2018-04-09.