Clinton Suggs knew he was the next to die. A few feet away, his fellow Navy diver, Robert Dean Stethem, had been beaten and shot dead by the hijackers. Bound and blindfolded, Suggs heard them shout in broken English, "Another one in five minutes! Another one in five minutes!"
One of the hijackers began to knock Suggs with his gun. "I thought I was dead," he said. "I prayed. I asked the Lord to receive me in his arms." Suddenly, he said, the flight purser, Uli Derickson, stepped between Suggs and the gunman. "I could feel her right next to me," he said.
"She saved my life. She said, 'Enough. Enough.' She diverted him."
Moments later, Suggs said, "We heard many voices screaming. Many people came on the plane." Shiite militia pushed Suggs and four other blindfolded passengers out of the plane and into a truck. They sped into the Beirut night for "what seemed like forever," he said, landing in a dark and secluded apartment where they would spend the rest of their captivity.
In his hotel room here today, Suggs, 29, who is based in Virginia Beach, told a tale of terror. But even as he spoke, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, his face half covered with the stubble of a beard, he could laugh. For this was a tale, too, cut with surreal humor and unexpected charity.
His guards, a 14-year-old and two 18-year-olds armed with machine guns, brought the captives a television after 10 days. "They all loved 'Dallas,' " Suggs said. "They love J.R. They'd lie on our mattresses with us and watch it. They said, 'What? You haven't been to Texas?' "
In the bare two-room apartment with Suggs were Stuart Dahl, the petty officer in charge; Kenn Bowen, and Tony Watson, all part of a team of Virginia Beach divers who were returning to the United States after repairing a sewage plant on a U.S. military base. The fifth was Kurt Carlson, a Rockford, Ill., businessman and an Army reservist.
Unlike most of the passengers held elsewhere, who gave television interviews and wrote their families, this group, possibly because of its military connections, was kept in isolation. Another group that included one military man and three civilians held by the original hijackers also was kept in isolation.
"We didn't know Clint was alive until four days ago," said Chantal Suggs, who flew here today to greet her husband. "We watched TV 24 hours a day. My emotions were one big roller coaster. Finally when he came on TV the night of the hotel party, I hugged the TV set."
During their captivity, the group made friends with an 18-year-old Amal militiaman named Hassan. "He became attached to us," Suggs said. "He would put his hand on his heart and say, 'You friend in heart.' He really meant it. He taught us Arabic words. He brought us food, cigarettes, water, soap. He gave us his radio and a little musical instrument, a keyboard flute."
Suggs and his companions never asked how "a friend in heart" could also be a kidnaper. "We didn't want to press our luck," he said. "I was nervous. They had guns. I didn't think they'd kill us. But we could get shot by accident."
And, always, the terrifying scene of Stethem's death replayed in his mind. They had sat shoulder-to-shoulder, heads down, hands tied behind their backs. Then, "they started beating Bob," Suggs remembered. "He was screaming and yelling. I heard the plane door open. I heard a shot. I heard Bob in pain. I said, 'Hang in there, Bob. Hang in there.' Then I heard a second shot."
During the long days they were held captive, Suggs gazed often at a small photo album of his wife and nine-month-old son, Paxton, which he always carries on trips. When they rose, sometimes as early as 7 a.m. or as late as 10 a.m., the men did physical exercises and took turns taking hot showers. They swept the floor and cleaned it with damp rags. They'd listen to British Broadcasting Co. programs and eat meals of bread, cheese, eggs, salads, rice and chicken or lamb. They fended off freelance intruders who wanted their watches and jewelry.
When their captors spoke of violence in Lebanon, Suggs said, "You felt sympathetic. You felt pity because you could see babies playing in the bombed ruins and cars shot up and little kids playing with guns."
Today, when Chantal Suggs, impatient with hours of official briefings, finally arrived at the Wiesbaden military hospital and saw her husband dressed in a hospital gown a few hundred yards away, "I started running like a jerk," she said. "I broke a toenail. I bumped into a million people. We hugged for I don't know how long. I was so happy that he was smiling and strong. I didn't want to let go."
At first, she said, "We talked about nice stuff. I told him Paxton started to walk while Daddy was away. After a while, we talked about Bob. I told him about the funeral." When he gets home, Suggs said, "I don't want to write a book. I don't want to make a lot of money. But I'd like to say there's a lot of suffering in the world and you really don't know until you get there. In Beirut, you see it. It is real. You feel it. You smell it. You touch it. You breathe it."