30 years later: Suburban residents recall TWA hostage drama

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Monsignor William McDonnell's name.

Many people remember the famous news photo from June 14, 1985, of TWA pilot John Testrake leaning out the cockpit window as a hijacker holds a gun to his head.

It captured a terrifying moment in history: when Shiite Hezbollah militants hijacked TWA flight 847 in Athens in an attempt to get Israel to release hostages. Dozens of suburban residents were on board that flight, many returning home from a trip to Israel organized through St. Margaret Mary Church in Algonquin and St. Peter Catholic Church in Geneva.

The hijackers fatally shot one passenger, U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem from Maryland, and threw his body on the tarmac. They ripped off a plane armrest and used it as a club to beat other passengers. They put guns to people's heads, robbed them of their money and jewelry, and had them in constant fear for their lives.

Women and some men were released in groups over several days as the plane was flown back and forth between Beirut, Lebanon, and Algiers, Algeria, but 39 men were held captive for 17 days until the U.S. negotiated for their safe release.

Today, 30 years later, only a few of the suburban survivors are still alive and in the area. They used to hold reunions every five years, but because of their dwindling numbers, this marks the first time they're not having one.

"It seems like it was yesterday, but it also feels so long ago," said passenger JoAnn Lazansky, 78, of Algonquin. "I still don't like to think about it."

Looking back, however, a few of the suburban survivors say the experience taught them lessons they've held onto throughout their lives.

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1. Family is all that matters.

Former hostage George Lazansky, 83, of Algonquin, tears up thinking about the 15-second phone call home he made during his captivity. It was done in secrecy, at a Beirut apartment where some of the men were being held.

Fearful he was going to die, Lazansky had been worrying constantly about his family. So when his son answered the phone and said, "Dad?" Lazansky got so choked up he couldn't speak. His son immediately handed the phone to his mom, JoAnn, who had been released earlier. George could only utter three words before he had to hang up: I love you.

"I was so emotional, I couldn't talk," he said. "I started to cry."

George and JoAnn Lazansky say that after they returned home, their family drew much closer. They have strong relationships with their adult children.

"Now, when they're hanging up the phone, it's easier to say, 'I love you.' I also try to listen more and be more understanding," George said. "Being cooped up ... and away from family and friends gave me time to think. If I get back home, what am I going to do differently? It changes you."

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  AT DAILYHERALD.COM/MORE: Monsignor James McLoughlin of Huntley was leading a tour of the Holy Land when the plane was hijacked. He asked President Reagan to negotiate their release. Brian Hill/

2. You can't live life feeling angry and afraid.

Even 30 years later, some passengers say they harbor anger toward the hijackers. They've struggled with the cruelty and savageness of what the hijackers did to innocent people.

Some passengers dealt with these feelings through professional counseling or prayer. Some find particular circumstances still trigger anxiety, like when someone rushes up an airplane aisle or there are loud noises.

Monsignor James McLoughlin, 75, of Huntley, then pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church, was on the flight with four parishioners. He said his symptoms mirrored the post-traumatic stress disorder his brother experienced after fighting in the Vietnam War.

"You can't live your life angry and scared," said McLoughlin, leader of the 33-member suburban group on the Israel tour.

McLoughlin relied on God to help him deal with his anger.

"I said (during prayer), 'God, this is not working. All I have to show for my 45 years is my anger. Please forgive me. Please accept me as I am,'" he said. "Then a calm came over me. I almost felt happy."

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  In 1985, after being held hostage for two days on TWA flight 847, Monsignor James McLoughlin of Huntley wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan that was printed in many newspapers. The letter signed by 29 hostages asked that the U.S. take no military action but instead negotiate their freedom by persuading the Israelis to release Lebanese prisoners. Brian Hill/

3. Faith helped them.

Many of the suburban passengers were churchgoing people and they had just toured the Holy Land, strengthening their faith. A few passengers told Monsignor William McDonnell, of Rockford, they had religious experiences during the hijacking. One man said he saw Jesus come off the cross and hold them all in his arms.

At one point, the hijackers told passengers they were either going to crash the plane in the Mediterranean Sea or collide with barricades that had been placed in an attempt to prevent them from landing at Beirut's airport.

A horrible death seemed imminent.

That's when McDonnell started silently saying the "Universal Prayer," a prayer he credits with helping him then and that he still frequently says today. It explains how suffering can be endured for a greater good:

I want to do what you ask of me;

In the way you ask,

For as long as you ask,

Because you ask it.

Teach me to realize that this world is passing,

That my true future is the happiness of heaven,

That life on earth is short,

And the life to come eternal.

"Once you face death like that, you can't quite reach that point again. There's less fear in you. I was less afraid to die, because you can only reach a peace moment like that once in a while," he said. "I just turned myself over to the Lord and had a tremendous sense of peace."

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The Rev. James McLoughlin of Huntley spoke to reporters as he arrived at O'Hare International Airport in 1985. He was among dozens of suburban residents on a TWA flight that was hijacked by Shiite Hezbollah militants. Daily Herald file photo

4. Forgiveness sounds easy, but it's very difficult.

The two monsignors on the plane say they've had to struggle to forgive their hijackers. Monsignor McLoughlin draws inspiration from the late Pope John Paul II, who forgave the man who shot him.

"I thought, if he could do it, I can do it," McLoughlin said.

McLoughlin wrote a letter to one of the hijackers in jail. It was cathartic to write it, though he received no response.

He and McDonnell pray for God to forgive the hijackers. Why?

"The Lord tells us, love your enemies," McDonnell said. "Otherwise, the revenge makes it into a circular retaliation. You don't want hatred to run your life."

<h3 class="leadin">5. There's a lot more to learn about the Middle East.

After his release, McLoughlin decided to educate himself about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, taking a course in Middle East history and traveling back to the region a few times. He encourages people to seek more information about what's happening in the region.

"What I thought I knew before was just blasted away," he said.

"But also, the more I studied, the more complicated it became."

<h3 class="leadin">6. Community support means everything during a crisis.

JoAnn Lazansky remembers the dozens of cards, prayers and the multi-church welcome-home picnic organized for the local people on the plane, including the 20 from St. Margaret Mary parish. During the crisis, the church became a gathering place for people to watch, wait and pray.

"You don't realize the importance of friendship until something like this happens," JoAnn said, adding that even strangers wrote her beautiful, prayer-filled letters, a few of which she's saved and reread many times. "It was so nice, and it meant so much."

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George Lazansky of Algonquin, pictured here in 1985 with his sons, puts his hands in the air for the news cameras after being released by the terrorists who hijacked his flight from Athens. Daily Herald File Photo

7. Don't take anything for granted.

While waiting at the U.S. Embassy to board a plane home after the hostages' release June 30, released hostage George Lazansky was asked if he'd like something to drink.

Having lived on oranges, stale rolls and water for 17 days, he ordered a Jack Daniels on the rocks.

"When I got the drink, I went to the corner. I just held it in my hand and worshipped it," he said, noting that he remembers the clinking sound of the ice in the glass. He recalls the sweet taste of the chocolate milk he had on the plane ride home.

It's not just those little pleasures, but life itself that should never be taken for granted, the passengers say.

"A thankful heart is a happy heart," added McDonnell. "It's important every day to say, 'Thank you, Lord.'"

Images: 30-year anniversary of the TWA flight 847 hijacking

How hijacking unfolded

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