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Valrico man remembered for service, hijack heroism

Robert Eugene DeNisco served in the U.S. Army for more than seven years. He saw action in Korea and Vietnam, earning the rank of sergeant and a Bronze Star after taking part in 25 combat missions.

Yet, it was his time as a Brinks security guard that family members talked about the most after the 22-year Brandon resident died in his home May 16. He was laid to rest Wednesday in a private military service at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Mr. DeNisco was 76.

Mr. DeNisco is best remembered as the only person to foil an attempted airline hijacking when he shot and disabled hijacker Donald B. Irwin on Sept. 15, 1970, on a TWA Boeing 707 jet as the plane sat on the runway in San Francisco. Irwin seized the plane by passing a note to flight attendant Sandy Adamson, brandishing a gun and demanding the plane head to North Korea.

Protecting approximately $50 million in cash and securities on that flight, Mr. DeNisco legally carried a .38 caliber gun on board and TWA Captain John Gilman was aware of it. Together, with the help of Adamson, they hatched a plan to shoot Irwin, which Mr. DeNisco ultimately did — in the stomach — protecting the lives of more than 50 people on board.

"I had to be absolutely sure I got the first shot and got him down with the first shot," Mr. DeNisco told the Associated Press in a September 2001 interview. "There could not be a barrage of bullets, not a gunfight, between me and him."

"I hear this little pop and I think, 'That has to be it,' " Gilman recalled in a 2004 Dateline NBC interview. Gilman then called for police, who were waiting on the runway near the parked jet, to board and secure the plane.

After that heroic event, President Richard Nixon invited him to speak and offered Mr. DeNisco a leadership position in the newly-formed U.S. Air Marshall program. Mr. DeNisco declined, and returned to work for Brinks, which was his character, said nephew Al Carapella, who owns Bloomingdale Pizza.

"He had a rough life in the beginning," said Carapella, who opened his home to Mr. DeNisco for a decade when he first moved to the area in the early 1990s. "He was appreciative of what he had and he did not have much."

Born in the Bronx to Italian immigrants Albert and Eugina DeNisco, he never married and had no children, which made family very important to him said Carapella, one of three nephews who live in the Brandon area, including George and Raymond. Mr. DeNisco also has a sister, Jean Jerstead in Orlando and a niece, Margo, in his native New York.

Described as "wildly free spirited and up on politics," Mr. DeNisco looked for the positives in things, said Carapella. He worked locally as a truck driver and enjoyed muscle cars and his Roush Mustang, but always cherished the military.

Mr. DeNisco also received the Air Medal, Good Conduct Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal. For his military service he also received letters of commendations from the U.S Navy, the Chief of Vietnamese Air and Harbor Police, the U.S. Army Provost Marshal, Commanding Officer of 716th M.P. Battalion, and the Commanding Officer of the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.

He received commendations from President Nixon, Department of Transportation Secretary John Volpe, and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and was honored by the 91st Congress in the Congressional Record, Sept. 16, 1970.

"I remember how secure we felt when he was around us," Carapella said. "He always came up with good words to encourage you to make the right decision."

Eric Vician can be reached at

Valrico man remembered for service, hijack heroism 05/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 2:36pm]
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