BEIRUT — They spoke of moments and hours of sheer terror, of sudden highs and crashing lows, and of the camaraderie, warmth and humor that developed among their own groups and with some of their guards.
To judge by their accounts, the 39 American hostages will never forget their 16 days as captives of Lebanese Shia gunmen after TWA Flight 847 was hijacked over Greece on June 14.
Like all foreigners who experience a little of the war in Lebanon, they underwent everything from mindless brutality to unstinting kindness and affection.
Recently, before they were freed, 35 of the Americans related their experiences to a few journalists who were with them for 6 1/2 hours in a Beirut schoolyard, waiting for the departure that eventually came on Sunday.
The Americans asked reporters to hold back the accounts of their harrowing experiences until they left Beirut.
"Do you guys find this as Felliniesque as we do?" asked Arthur Toga, 33, of St Louis as the wait dragged on. (The reference was to Federico Fellini, the Italian film-maker.)
Toga, a slight, bearded figure, was leaning against a pillar, wise-cracking with Hassan, a giant Shia militiaman sporting a big smile, a khaki jumpsuit and a snub-nosed little Beretta submachine gun.
Hassan, a fighter with the Amal militia, was seen a few weeks earlier in a blinding rage, trying to throw a hand grenade into a car carrying a U.N. official and the Austrian ambassador.
But he only grinned amiably Saturday as Toga reached up, tugged his beard, and told him: "I'm gonna take you as a hostage to New York."
"You want my Beretta?" replied Hassan, jokingly offering the automatic weapon.
The militiaman turned to a journalist and said in broken English: "They real men. Only time we have real Americans here. I look after American brothers here, give them cigarettes, food."
He slapped 24-year-old Philadelphian Blake Synnestvedt on the back, laughing: "Blake, he keep asking for wife."
Three hostages said they were locked in a cellar for three days last week and fed through iron bars.
"We were really mad, just about to go bananas," said Jack McCarthy of San Francisco. "Was it a punishment? We don't know why. They just separated us from our group in the house, took us down and left us there."
He added: "Afterwards the militiaman whose house it was slapped me on the back and said 'you very good, you my guest.' What do you make of that?"
"It's a little bit Felliniesque, surrealistic," said Toga, a psychologist at a Missouri medical school. "We find ourselves scared to death one minute, and buddying up with these guys the next."
The previous night (Friday), he said, was the most bizarre of his life. "You're a political prisoner and at midnight they rush you out of bed to this luxury resort hotel with the biggest swimming pool you've ever seen." Toga was referring to a "final dinner" the hostages' captors gave them early Saturday morning when it looked like the hostages would be leaving for Damascus.
"They sat us down to a tablecloth dinner and very fine food, and a cake that had something like 'good luck on your way home' on it. Then they had us all call our families back home until three in the morning."
Toga and Synnestvedt were in a group of five hostages whom Hassan helped guard. "Hassan is one of our very close friends here," Toga said. "He is very good. He brought us ice cream. I couldn't believe my eyes when he arrived with it."
Toga's tone changed a little as Hassan finished autographing a copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, for the hostages and ambled off to another group.
"I want you to put something down," Toga said. "The sound of safety catches clicking will haunt me till the day I die."
Synnestvedt nodded in agreement: "Especially the 9-millimeter pistols. On the plane they rolled back the hammers all the time as they walked up and down the aisle."
All the Americans urged newsmen to distinguish between the two original hijackers, believed to belong to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God), and the Amal fighters who later guarded the Americans at various safe houses in Beirut.
Peter Hill, 57, from Schaumburg, Ill., called the hijackers "animals." Toga added: "Amal really reined in those guys."
The hostages recalled that their watches, rings and personal jewelry, and those of the women originally on board, were stolen. Some of their baggage was also missing or rifled.
"They even took our belts," said Leo Byron, 47, from Harrisburg, Pa. "Heaven knows why."
Stethem Killing Noted
Thomas V.S. Cullins, 42, an architect from Burlington, Vt., told of the killing of U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem on the second day of the hijack.
"We were aware of it. The (TWA) purser Uli Derickson said, 'Put your heads down and cover your ears, and if you hear a strange noise don't look up or it will be our fate.'
"She said it in such a strange way, a bit foreign. But probably 30 seconds later there was a pop and there was no mistaking what it was," Cullins said.