Terrorism had become such a fact of life in Rome that even an 11-year-old American named Natasha Simpson felt vulnerable. "I hope we don't get hijacked," she was said to have remarked as her family prepared for a trip to the United States this week.
Yesterday, Natasha became one of the youngest American victims of terrorism, killed in a spray of gunfire while waiting to board a New York-bound flight at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport.
Her father, Victor Simpson, the Rome news editor for the Associated Press who had reported often on terrorism, was hit in the hand as he tried to shield his daughter from the bullets. She died in his arms, according to a family friend. Her 9-year-old brother, Michael, was severely wounded in the abdomen, the friend said.
Natasha's mother, Daniella Petroff Simpson, a reporter for Time magazine and the AP, was spared -- having left the departure lounge minutes earlier to walk her terrier, Jimmy.
"Suddenly there was a shattering noise . . . And then there were machine-gun bursts," Daniella Simpson told the AP. "Two distinct machine-gun bursts. And then silence. I rushed into screams and cries, and saw my husband dripping blood from his hand and my son on the floor shot in the stomach. They are both okay. But I lost my 11-year-old daughter."
Italian officials identified two other Americans, John Buonocore, 20, of Wilmington, Del., and Don Maland, 30, of New Port Richey, Fla., among the 14 dead.
Italian police preliminarily identified one of the dead as Frederick Gage, giving no other information. The State Department, however, said last night that it could not confirm the report. "There is no positive identification," said spokeswoman Deborah Cavin. In Madison, Wis., officials of Madison Newspapers Inc., which publishes The Capital Times, said Frederick K. Gage, 29, a member of the board of directors of The Capital Times Co., was known to be traveling in Italy, the Associated Press reported.
Buonocore, a junior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., had just completed a four-month program in classics -- his longest stay away from home -- and was flying back for his father's birthday yesterday.
"He said he wanted a prime rib, a baked potato and a Bud," Buonocore's mother said in a telephone interview. "So that's what we have waiting for him. We have welcome-home signs up and everything."
Buonocore, picked last year as the outstanding ROTC cadet at his college, had completed his Rome studies on Dec. 16, but decided at the last minute to stay on and visit his father's relatives in Sorrento -- a decision that put him in the line of the terrorists' fire.
"I told him that was all right to stay on , to come home right afterwards and we'll celebrate then. And that's it. He'll never come home again," Buonocore's mother said.
In the aftermath in Rome, a circle of journalists who said they had become almost inured to faceless terrorism spoke with horror of the loss of young Natasha Simpson. In interviews, they spilled out details of her brief life, an adults' account of a remarkable little girl:
She was bright, feminine and pretty; she didn't laugh much, but smiled a lot. Born and raised in Rome, she was fluent in Italian and English, and was learning French. She made straight-As in the sixth grade at Marymount International School, where she had just written a four-act Christmas play with a friend. She loved swimming at the Fregene seashore, where her family had stayed in a cottage, and skiing in Northern Italy.
"She would strike people by her good manners," Manuela Redmont, a journalist-friend of the Simpsons and the wife of Simpson's bureau chief, said in a telephone interview from Rome. "She was such a delicate, sensible young girl. I could describe her as a nonproblem child. And very feminine. You would look at her and you could see she was a lady from her feet to her hair."
Natasha was especially close to her maternal grandmother, an Austrian-born American who lives in Rome, Redmont said. "She looked very much like her grandmother, the same coloring, very fair-skinned, rosy cheeks and her lips kind of rosy too, eyes between green and brown, and very Austrian-German hair, sort of reddish-brown, almost the color of copper."
She apparently did not want to follow her parents into journalism. "She probably saw them going away all the time," Redmont said.
Well before the attack, an undercurrent of nervousness about terrorism already had crept into the lives of the Simpsons and many other Americans in Rome. Three days before departing, Daniella Simpson told a colleague that the family would be "the first to go if seized by Arab hijackers because we are all Americans and Victor is Jewish," a friend recalled.
Referring to Natasha's recent remark about a possible hijacking, another journalist-friend remarked: "This is something that has especially gotten into the psyche of our kids. Most of us think Rome is very safe, except when some mad thing like this happens. But I think kids carry around a submerged feeling now that when they get on planes, they're taking their lives in their hands.
"And if they're kids of journalists, they're even more aware because one of their parents may be off chasing it."
The Simpsons are a well-known journalistic couple in Rome, having met and married while working there. Victor, 43, has been Rome bureau news editor since 1972, and is a respected correspondent who has covered some of the major European and Middle Eastern stories of the past 13 years. Daniella, 40, covers the Vatican for Time and has written fashion articles for the AP.
Manuela Redmont said that Victor Simpson's first call was to her husband, Dennis, the bureau chief.
"Victor was in despair because his little girl was killed but he also was still a journalist: Something happened, this is the story," she said. "But then when the photographers and the TV crew wanted to take a picture of him and his son, he almost went into a fight because at that point his private life was getting into the story, a story he might have had to do as a journalist.
"Suddenly he was on the other side, so the whole thing changed. As Victor said, life will never be the same again.