It was a bright morning for the hostages, a time of festivity that began, really, just after midnight with a farewell meal at a beach club overlooking the Mediterranean. The end was supposed to come this afternoon with a happy welcome at a U.S. military base in West Germany.
By 11 a.m. the hostages from TWA Flight 847 were gathered at a schoolhouse in the Burj al Barajinah suburb near the airport. Red Cross ambulances waited to drive them across the border to Syria. They listened gleefully to radio reports of their impending liberation.
Nearby there were plenty of signs of suffering: the homes of a Palestinian camp shattered by recent fighting, truck-mounted machine guns on nearby streets. Everywhere were reminders of the wars of Beirut -- the wars that have reached out and grabbed them. But their spirits were high. Their bags were packed. They were ready to go.
But they did not go.
"We're ready for this roller coaster ride of emotion to come to an end," said Allyn Conwell, the square-jawed Texan who has become the main voice of the group. "But we will not under any circumstances give up hope."
All the while, three miles away the fate of the hostages was being wrangled and sweated over by men in a down-at-the-heels office among battered apartments with sandbagged entranceways not far from the main battle line that has divided this city since 1975.
Hordes of reporters had left for Damascus to greet the hostages when they got there.
Those who were left were summoned three times to hear the good news from Nabih Berri, the Shiite leader who made himself the man in the middle of this crisis during the past two weeks. Three times, the last just before dusk, the reporters were told to go away. There was nothing for them.
Inside the office as the afternoon dragged on it became ever more evident that something had brought the freedom train to a halt; the tension became palpable.
Berri's number two man emerged at one point to pray: his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, his face and hands wet from the ritual ablutions. He looked as if he had just emerged from a steam bath.
The wife of the kidnaped French journalist Michel Seurat waited nervously in an anteroom. Berri had said Seurat and his colleague Jean-Paul Kauffman would be freed along with the Americans.
She sat quietly for the most part, occasionally looking for consolation from a French diplomat in a white suit who had nothing but his diplomatic cool to offer her. Finally they, too, left disappointed.
Hours later, Berri said he would free Kauffmann and Seurat either along with the Americans or on their own in Lebanon. But by then freedom seemed a much more distant prospect.
Late in the day a young American-educated banker close to Berri, Jaafar Jalabi, tried to stifle reports that there were new demands and new obstacles beyond the difficulty raised by President Reagan's talk of thugs and murderers.
It seemed a moment for instant communication with the people of the United States. Jalabi took a call from NBC's Roger Mudd. The line was cut. He went down to his Mercedes surrounded by bodyguards and called on his radio phone.
The line was bad. Finally he got through. NBC put him on hold, said the line wasn't good enough. They got back to him when Mudd's show was over.
The phones were the focus of everyone's attention. Berri, his aide said, was waiting for a call. Outside in the dark, the streets among the barricades had emptied. Guards strolled and played with their AK47 rifles. One pointed his gun at the roofs of buildings, moving about in a kind of stylized choreography to amuse himself .
It was 9:15 p.m. and the call had not come. Berri walked through the office surrounded even inside his building by bodyguards and then down the stairs to his apartment.
Jalabi said Berri was going to try to sleep. Maybe Sunday the camera crews could be summoned once again for the good news and could stay there to hear it.