Charlene Delmonico, a 23-year-old flight attendant, walked up the aeroplane aisle of flight TWA85 towards the cockpit door. Behind her, the hijacker held a rifle to her back. It was the early hours of Friday 31st October 1969, and the beginning of the longest hijacking in history. The young man holding the rifle was Raffaele Minichiello. He was a troubled man who had moved to the United States with his parents after three earthquakes in August 1962 had left their village in Italy uninhabitable and many families, including the Minichiellos, totally destitute. The failure of those in authority to come to their aid left a deep scar on Raffaele’s heart. His experiences as a US Marine in Vietnam reopened this scar. In addition to witnessing some horrific scenes, he had been cheated of $200 and broke into a store on the base to steal the equivalent sum in goods. He was caught and the day before the hijacking he was due to appear before a court-martial. Instead, he went on the run and boarded the plane at Los Angeles.
Captain David Cook correctly guessed that Minichiello was heading for Rome. He told the hijacker that the plane needed a lot more fuel to fly the Atlantic. After negotiation, Minichiello agreed to a stop in Denver for refuelling. It had already been several hours of tension and uncertainty for the crew and passengers. But the gunman proved quite accommodating and allowed thirty-nine passengers and three flight attendants, including Charlene Delmonico, to leave the plane at Denver. For the three hour flight to John F Kennedy airport in New York, only five people remained on board TWA85 – Captain Cook, first officer Wenzel Williams, flight engineer Lloyd Hollrah, flight attendant Tracey Coleman and the hijacker himself. An attempt by 100 FBI agents to board the plane at JFK failed when Minichiello got nervous and accidentally pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot sent everyone into a panic and the plane quickly took off again. After refuelling in Bangor, Maine, and stopping off in Ireland, the plane finally landed in Rome, the eighteen and a half-hour hijacking covering 6,900 miles was finally over.
A deputy customs official named Pietro Guli had volunteered to meet the hijacker’s demand for a car to drive him away from the airport. Remarkably, the Alfa Romeo managed to shake off all the pursuing cars as Raffaele Minichiello gave directions to Naples. When the car stopped, he got out and ran into the fields. Twenty-three hours after leaving Los Angeles, his journey came to an end when he was found by a priest in a church where he had taken refuge. His now-famous face was easily recognised and he was handed over to the police.
On trial in Italy
The Italian authorities insisted that he should be tried in Italy and not extradited to the US where he could have faced the death penalty. He was prosecuted just for crimes committed in Italian airspace and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. This was later reduced on appeal, and he was released on 1 May 1971. He had become a folk hero in Italy, partly due to his lawyer, Giuseppe Sotgiu. At the trial, he asserted that Minichiello was a poor Italian victim of a foreign war. ‘I am sure that Italian judges will understand and forgive an act born from a civilisation of aircraft and war violence, a civilisation which overwhelmed this uncultured peasant.’
But Raffaele Minichiello was not a changed man. Not yet. More trauma lay ahead. On 23rd November 1980, eighteen years after the earthquake that made his family destitute, the most powerful earthquake to strike Italy in 70 years caused enormous damage to the Naples area. Up to 4,690 people died, and many were left homeless. Many Italians travelled to the area to give relief. Among them was Raffaele. In the wake of the earthquake, he began to reflect on his actions as a younger man and became repentant. ‘I’m very different now to who I was,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry for what I did to those people on the plane.’
Settling in Rome, he married Cinzia, a bar owner’s daughter. They had one son. Life seemed to be going well, but then, in February 1985, Cinzia was pregnant with their second child. Tragically, as a result of medical malpractice, both she and the baby died. Once again, Raffaele felt let down by the authorities. In anger, he knew what he would do. He would target a medical conference outside Rome by acquiring several guns and launching a vicious, deadly attack.
But the Lord intervened. Raffaele had a Christian friend, Tony, who sensed the distress that his colleague was experiencing. Tony introduced him to the Bible, and over some time, Raffaele experienced the grace and forgiveness of God through trusting in Christ. He called off the attack.
Asking for forgiveness
By 1999 the US authorities had dropped all criminal charges against him. Aware of his courage on the battlefield and the trauma he had suffered, his former Vietnam comrades were fighting for him to be exonerated. As they worked on this, he asked them to help him in another mission: finding those who were on board TWA85. He wanted to seek their forgiveness. He would travel to the US and, if they were willing, would meet with those he terrorised.
Many invitations were sent, but on 8 August 2009, only two people responded: Wenzel Williams, the flight officer, and Charlene Delmonico. Interviewed by the BBC, she said that when she received the invitation from Minichiello, she initially felt shock. The hijacking was one of the most traumatic incidents in her life. It had defined her and reshaped her life. Why should she meet the man who had once put a gun to her back? But then, as a churchgoer, she thought more about it.
‘Then,’ she said, ‘I thought: we are taught to forgive. But I didn’t know how I would receive him.’
At the meeting, she saw the commitment and support these friends had for Minichiello. After a while, he walked into the room. It was tense, but after much discussion, the group were drawn closer together.
‘In a way, I got a little closure, saw a different viewpoint,’ Delmonico said. ‘I probably felt sorry for him.’
Before they left, Raffaele handed them both a copy of the New Testament. Inside, he had written: Thank you for your time, so much. I appreciate your forgiveness for my actions that put you in harm’s way. Please accept this book, that has changed my life. God bless you so much, Raffaele Minichiello.
Underneath, he added the words Luke 23 v 34, which reads ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’
‘Sorry’ really is the hardest word
As believers, we know that we are to forgive those who trespass against us. Charlene Delmonico acknowledged that this is never easy, even after forty years. But surely it is even harder to ask for forgiveness? The story of Raffaele Minichiello reminds us of Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son. There can be no reconciliation without a true repentance that seeks forgiveness, first from our heavenly father and then from those we have sinned against. This Easter is there someone you need to forgive? Is there someone whose forgiveness you need to seek?