At the time, Bob Peel Sr. says, it seemed like sheer good luck.

After a pleasant but exhausting Mediterranean vacation, four members of the Peel family were stranded in a jammed, chaotic airport, their flight to New York canceled because of mechanical problems.

Then a ticket agent brought them the news: The Peels could have the last four seats on a TWA flight to Rome, with easy connections on to the United States.

As it happened, it wasn't so easy.

When the Peels took those tickets and boarded TWA Flight 847, they walked into a maelstrom of ancient ethnic animosities and modern airborne terrorism.

During the next three days, at three different stops, three of the Peels were released by the Shiite Moslems who had hijacked the plane -- Lou Peel, 59; her husband, Bob Peel Sr., 58, and their daughter-in-law, Kristi Peel, 33.

But Kristi's husband, Bob Peel Jr., 33, remains a hostage in Beirut. And the Peels, now safely home in this quiet city deep in the heart of Kansas, say their current ordeal -- waiting for news of their loved one -- is worse than what they went through when they, too, were captives.

"Oh, the waiting is much, much tougher," says Bob Peel Sr., whose jovial, wisecracking manner gives way to quiet sobs when he talks about his son. "For the last 24 hours on the plane, I sat with Bobby," he says. "No father and son have ever been closer. And now this."

In a way, the Peels, proprietors of Peels' Friendly Beauty Supply, a wholesale business based here, may be better equipped than most families to get through this disaster.

Lou Peel makes her living writing and speaking on positive thinking. Despite her experience on Flight 847, she says she plans to travel to Hungary next month for a speaking engagement.

Bob Peel Sr. says he has totaled three cars during his career as a salesman and was shot in the face during a hunting accident a few years back. "Mentally, we've learned to be strong people, to put up with whatever comes along," he says. "But this waiting . . . this waiting . . . . "

Characteristically, the hostage's father has high praise for almost everyone he has dealt with since the hijacking. "The American Embassy people were terrific. Sen. Robert J. Dole has been phenomenal. TWA is out of this world. The media have done an amazingly good job under very hard circumstances."

Although the Peels say they don't want to discuss the politics of the situation, they express genuine sympathy for the Lebanese prisoners, most of them Shiites, held in Israel -- the prisoners whose capture evidently prompted the hijacking.

Bob Peel Sr. has sent three strongly worded telegrams to President Reagan urging him to negotiate with those who are holding his son.

"You are asking Shiites to release our hostages without any guarantees," one of the wires said. "They don't trust American government . . . . It's more important to bend your strong policy than jeopardize 40 Americans, who are more important than your foreign policy, which has created hate for America."

Both father and son signed the letter sent by the hostages to Reagan urging negotiations to release both American and Shiite prisoners in the Mideast. The senior Peel says the letter was "absolutely not written under duress."

The Peel family has received enormous support here in Hutchinson, a town of 40,000 and home of the Kansas state fair.

Every bank, bakery and burger shop in town seems to have posted a "Pray for Bob Peel" sign, and yellow ribbons festoon nearly every vertical object, from flagpoles to goal posts to parking meters. Last Sunday, townspeople released 4,000 yellow balloons into the sky as a further display of support for the Peel family.

So many letters and gifts have been sent that one room in the family business establishment looks like a florist shop dealing only in yellow blooms. Calls and letters have come from family friends, politicians and even a business competitor who hauled the Peels to court in a bitter dispute a few years back.

Peel says a pleasant clerk at the State Department dutifully calls three times a day with the latest news. "But he doesn't tell you any more than you can learn reading the newspapers," he adds.

And so there's nothing left except waiting for the day when Bob Peel Jr. comes home to Hutchinson.

"Oh, we're going to laugh a little then," says the father, his voice breaking. "And we're probably going to cry a little, too."