"We were in the dining room ready for our dessert, when suddenly we heard gunshots and someone yelled, 'Get down on the floor,' " said Viola Meskin, one of 12 Americans taken hostage in the two-day ordeal of the cruise ship Achille Lauro.

What followed was a violent and terrifying odyssey that cost the life of one 69-year-old American invalid and seemed, as often as not, to be leading nowhere.

The four Palestinian hijackers, according to American eyewitnesses at a press conference early this morning, seemed uncertain what their next move would be once they started their shooting.

"One minute they would try to be kind, the next minute they would do the cruelest things," Meskin said.

At one point, Marilyn Klinghoffer, whose husband was killed, was hit with the butt of a gun when she failed to move as quickly as one of the hijackers demanded.

"The next minute," said Meskin, "they would go get a cup if you wanted a drink of water and wash it out for you."

"They looked like kids who were hopped up," she said.

Although the terrorists appear by most accounts to have been from a splinter faction of the Palestine Liberation Front, and not directly from Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, Meskin recalled that they would try clumsily to indoctrinate the passengers.

"You know, 'Reagan no good, Arafat good,' all this kind of talk," Meskin said.

Reports out of Israel have suggested that the hijacking may have begun when the Palestinians, hoping to land in Israel with the boat when it docked there, were somehow discovered for what they were.

In the first moments after the bullets from their automatic rifle laced the ceiling of the ship's dining room, Meskin and her husband Seymour, 71, a retired accountant from Metuchen, N.J., remember hearing groans.

The hijackers had entered the dining room from the kitchen and had beaten a couple of the ship's crew there, the Meskins said.

Other passengers interviewed in Port Said yesterday as they left the boat remembered recognizing the Palestinian pirates as men they had seen dining with them after the boat departed from Genoa eight days ago.

One, the leader who called himself Omar, would show up later as an unsmiling face, dark with a heavy mustache, seated among the festive vacationers in the photographs posted in the ship's hallways.

"They showed their power. They had hand grenades in their hands. They removed the pins and played with them," Viola Meskin said.

The hijacking began between the Egyptian ports of Alexandria -- where more than 600 had gone ashore for a day visit to Cairo and the Pyramids -- and Port Said. Those passengers still aboard who were not at lunch were called to the dining room by the terrorists.

"We were together, I think 85 passengers," said a Belgian woman who was among freed hostages who were in Port Said last night. The 12 Americans and the British were singled out, she said, but the hijackers seemed most intent on finding Israelis.

Two had been on board, but they debarked in Alexandria and so were spared the terror on board.

"The American people were not enough for them," said the Belgian woman, who, still fearful, asked that she not be named. "That's why they were a little nervous. They had thought to get a bigger group."

Anna Hoerendner of Austria heard the shots at the beginning of the hijack and ducked into a cabin to hide. She stayed, for the next 62 hours, cowering under the bed of the cabin or in the bathroom.

"I just drank water and ate the couple of apples I had," she told reporters on the dock at Port Said.

The passengers assembled in the dining room were soon taken to the salon on the deck above, where five British dancers and a Polish troupe had entertained the vacationers during the evenings of their Mediterranean cruise.

The chairs were pushed to one corner of the room and there the passengers stayed, forbidden to move.

Diplomats who boarded the ship yesterday said both the dining room and the showroom were full of bullet holes from the sprays of gunfire the terrorists used to intimidate the passengers.

Small barrels that the terrorists said were gasoline bombs were placed on the stage and at the entrances to the showroom. Always there was the threat of a tossed grenade and a holocaust.

The passengers were forced to stay there, sleeping as best they could on the chairs or on the floor.

While Tuesday morning began comparatively calm, the mood then grew uglier.

Mildred Hodes, whose husband Frank had gone ashore for the Cairo tour, remembered this morning that two Austrian Jews, the British dancers, and 11 of the 12 Americans were taken to a deck above the ship's lounge and just below the captain's bridge.

They were forced to kneel there, according to two of them.

It was a crucial moment in the hijackers' attempt to negotiate -- off the Syrian coast -- the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners from Israel. The pirates wanted the American and the Italian and perhaps other European ambassadors in Damascus to act as intermediaries, but the answers they were getting were too slow.

People on the foredeck were "being used supposedly for the British and the Americans to see us there," said Mildred Hodes.

One American, however, had been left behind.

Leon Klinghoffer, 69, from Manhattan, had a stroke six years ago and walked only with difficulty. He spent most of the cruise in his wheelchair. The Meskins, the Hodeses, and many others who had taken the cruise were his close friends.

According to Mildred Hodes, he and his wife Marilyn had been ordered onto the foredeck, but then one of the hijackers told Leon, "You stay [below]. She goes."

Radio messages monitored at about that time between the ship and the port authority in Tartus, Syria, record brutal conversations in which the hijackers grew impatient minute by minute and, just before their 3 p.m. deadline, announced that an American had been killed.

"None of us saw the actual murder," said Seymour Meskin. But after three hours on the foredeck they were returned to the show room and "when we got back he [Klinghoffer] was not to be found."

According to several European diplomats who talked with Capt. Gerardo de Rosa yesterday, the captain saw Klinghoffer with blood on his legs and heard shots on the foredeck, but was warned that he would be shot, too, if he did not quit looking down from the bridge.

According to diplomats who were on the ship yesterday, one Portuguese steward was the only eyewitness to the killing. Italy's ambassador to Egypt has been quoted as saying, on the basis of ex-hostages' accounts, that Klinghoffer was shot in the head and then both he and his wheelchair were thrown overboard.

But the Meskin's and Mildred Hodes knew nothing certain about this. Viola Meskin remembered only hearing that "there were gunshots and a splash."

According to Mildred Hodes, they stayed on the foredeck for three hours and then "at about 4:30 the 11 Americans -- at that point -- were taken into a side room until a little after 6, when they let us back in" to the salon with the rest of the hostages.

"When we got back," said Seymour Meskin, Klinghoffer "was not to be found."

When Klinghoffer's friends asked about him, they said they were told he was sick and had been wheeled away. Later, they said today, they were told he had been taken to the ship's hospital.

"That was the way it went from Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon when the hijack ended," said Seymour Meskin

Then, when the Palestinians had left the ship, Klinghoffer's friends went looking for him. They asked the ship's doctors about him.

"Neither of them had seen him and Leon was nowhere to be found," said Meskin.

Frank Hodes, who boarded the ship early yesterday morning to be with his family, said, "the chair and the body disappeared."

The ship's crew did not immediately tell any of Klinghoffer's friends what had happened.

"My own hunch," said Meskin, "is that they all knew Leon was dead and they were afraid to tell us" because they were afraid his wife would become hysterical.

Meanwhile, the controversy over where the hijackers were taken and who might prosecute was ablaze among the survivers of the interrupted cruise.

Told that the hijackers might have gotten away, Meskin said, "We think it stinks." And there were the questions of why and how the Palestinians' piracy was carried out.

According to one Swiss diplomat who boarded the ship yesterday, some passengers recalled one of the hijackers, as he left, saying "Sorry, we took the wrong ship."