On Saturday, June 15, 1985, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Trans World Airlines flight 847 leaving Athens bound for Boston by way of Rome had been hijacked by two men armed with AK-47 submachine guns and hand grenades and claiming association with the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. Many of the 153 passengers were Americans.
The hijackers killed a U.S. Navy diver named Robert Stethem and dropped his body onto the tarmac. After multiple flights to Beirut and Algiers, releasing hostages at each stop, the hijackers and the approximately 40 remaining hostages, all American men, landed and stayed in Beirut.
The hijackers demanded the release of more than 700 Lebanese Shiite prisoners by Israel and U.S. and Israeli promises not to retaliate militarily. If their demands weren’t met, the hijackers vowed the hostages would be killed. They would only negotiate through the Muslim Amal militia in Beirut, and Nabih Berri, an Amal official, was the go-between.
The June 16 Gazette reported that Little Rock natives Jim and Sammie Palmer and their teenage son Joe Don were passengers on the hijacked flight. Sammie and Joe Don had been released in Algeria, but Jim was still a hostage.
The Arkansans lived in Saudi Arabia where Jim was an air conditioning and refrigeration specialist for Borg-Warner Corp. They were en route to Little Rock for vacation.
On June 17, the hijackers let Amal militia take all the hostages except the three crew members from the jet and hold them captive in groups of four or five across Beirut.
On June 26, Jim Palmer was released due to concerns over a heart condition. As this Page 1 of the June 27 Gazetteconveyed, Palmer had been examined by an International Red Cross physician and freed. He was photographed holding a loaded handgun during a news conference at Berri’s bunker in Beirut. In an interview later, Palmer said he regretted the picture. “I didn’t even want to touch the damned gun, but they were just insisting and I’m sorry that picture was taken. It’s very misleading indeed.”
On June 28, Palmer arrived at the Little Rock airport with Sammie, who had flown to meet him in London. A party awaited him, complete with a band, Lt. Gov. Winston Bryant and Little Rock Mayor Tom Prince in attendance. An emotional Palmer said, “This is the greatest homecoming anybody could ask for.”
The State Department issued a statement June 29 that reasserted its “long-standing support” for Lebanon, the “preservation” of its government, “and for the mitigation of the suffering of its people.” Along with Syria’s promise to Berri that Israel would free the requested prisoners, the statement satisfied the hijackers: after 17 days in captivity, the remaining hostages were freed June 30 and flown to Frankfurt, West Germany.
— Jeanne Dahl
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