On June 14, 1985, Robert Stethem and five fellow U.S. Navy divers were flying back from a project in Greece, looking forward to seeing family and friends in the United States.
The next day, Stethem, a bullet in his head, was pushed out of the plane and died on the tarmac of the Beirut Airport.Witnesses at the trial of confessed hijacker Mohammed Ali Hamadi have been giving a Frankfurt court a gut-wrenching account of the slaying of the 23-year-old Maryland man who hoped to make a career in the Navy but who became the only person killed in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
The court has not ruled on the facts of the case, but the witnesses and official accounts have made possible a reconstruction of Stethem's last hours.
Shortly after the Boeing 727 leaves Athens, some passengers hear a commotion from the rear of the jet-liner as two Shiite Moslem gunmen run screaming down the aisle, brandishing a hand grenade and a chrome-plated pistol.
"Americans die, come to die!" passenger Kurt Carl-son hears the gunmen shouting at the 145 passengers and eight crew members at about 10 a.m.
Clinton Suggs, stationed in Norfolk, Va., wakes his Navy buddy, Stethem, from a short nap.
"This should be interesting," Stethem says.
Stethem is dressed casually in a checkered shirt and slacks. He has traded in the long hair he sported at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf, Md., near Washington, for the close-cropped haircut more suited to underwater welding.
Hamadi and his accomplice, Hassan Ezzeddine, quickly round up passports and single out the U.S. military personnel.
The military men are hustled up to the first-class section, where a language difficulty fuels Hamadi's notion that Stethem is a U.S. Marine and therefore the object of particular hate.
Stethem is tied up with elastic baggage straps, and the first in a long series of beatings begins. Sometimes they are just a few feet from pilot John Testrake of Richmond, Mo., and the two other men in the cockpit.
At one point, Stethem complains about his bonds and shouts, "It's too tight, it's too tight!"
Hamadi, who records show has just turned 21, responds: "Let the pig suffer."
Stethem's shouts are heard throughout the jetliner as it approaches Beirut airport.
One hijacker beats Stethem with an armrest torn from a seat, the sharp metal screws still pointing out. When Stethem collapses nearly unconscious, one of the hijackers jumps up and down on his ribs, leaving his chest a mass of black-and-blue marks.
"Marine, Marine!" the tormentors scream, apparently recalling the U.S. Marine presence in Lebanon in 1983.
They beat Stethem again after authorities at Beirut airport delay refueling the airliner. Stethem, barely able to walk, is helped back to the coach section.
That's when he meets up again with Ruth Henderson, an Australian teenager who chatted with Stethem at the Athens airport.
Stethem is crying. Several ribs are broken and one hand is completely numb as he sits next to the girl.
Ruth helps Stethem eat because he is unable to feed himself. The unmarried diver, barely able to talk, tells Ruth he hopes that if anyone has to die he will be the one since his Navy buddies on the flight are all married.
The plane heads to Algeria early that same Friday afternoon. After the four-hour flight, the hijackers savagely beat Army Reserve officer Carlson of Rockford, Ill., and leave him for dead during tense negotiations for more jet fuel.
In the evening, the hijackers order the plane back to Beirut. Stethem is brought back to the front of the airplane, and the beating resumes. The plane lands early the next morning: Saturday, June 15, 1985.
When negotiations with the tower in Beirut erupt into a screaming match, one of the hijackers shouts, "Get up! Get up!" to Stethem. Stethem's head leaves a huge red imprint of blood on the aircraft's side.
Stethem and Suggs are bound and blindfolded.
Sometime after 2:30 a.m. in Beirut, the hijackers pull the curtain on the first-class section. The stunned passengers and crew hear one shot - possibly more.
When the bullet pierces his head behind the right ear and exits on the other side of his head, Stethem exhales so loudly the passengers and crew hear it above the whining of the jet engines.
"My God, they have shot someone," chief flight attendant Uli Derickson says.
The hijackers toss Stethem, still moaning, out the passenger exit and down onto the runway, where he remains alive for about 10 minutes.
His body is taken to the morgue at the American University hospital in Beirut.
Hamadi has denied pulling the trigger and said it was the work of his accomplice.
But Stethem's supervisor, Navy diver Stuart Dahl, also stationed in Norfolk, Va., said Hamadi gloated over the slaying.
"He was proud of it," Dahl testified. "He looked like the fox that got the chicken. He showed absolutely no remorse."