His passport was found in a flight bag near the body in Rome, but at midnight Friday, U.S. officials were still unable to confirm that the victim was Frederick K. Gage of Madison, Wis.

Yet there was little doubt at The Capital Times in Madison, where the 29-year-old heir to a publishing fortune was the youngest member of the newspaper's board of directors. "I thought there must be some mistake, until I realized he was going to St. Peter's for Christmas Eve," editor Dave Zweifel said.

Reporters at the small afternoon paper rushed into the familiar rituals of covering yet another terrorist incident, but this time one of their own was among the victims.

Pens in hand, they broke the news to Gage's friends and family around town, many of them at a downtown tavern he frequented, and searched his vacationing father's house for a picture that was published on yesterday's front page.

It was the lead story in every newspaper in America, the twin terrorist attacks on the airports in Rome and Vienna that left 18 persons dead and 113 wounded.

Five Americans were among those killed in Rome, 12 remained hospitalized yesterday and seven or eight had been treated and released, U.S. officials said. No Americans were injured in the Vienna shootings.

But it was also a story that, by the bizarre coincidences that determine such fates, directly touched some of those in the news business.

Some of the earliest reports on the Rome attack came from Victor Simpson, the Rome news editor for the Associated Press, whose 11-year-old daughter, Natasha, was killed at the airport despite his efforts to shield her.

Simpson was shot in the hand and his son, Michael, 9, was wounded in the abdomen. His wife Daniella, who works for Time magazine, escaped injury.

The other Americans killed at Leonardo da Vinci airport were a random cross-section of holiday travelers.

Elena Tomarello, 67, an Italian-born American citizen, was returning home to Pittsburgh after spending six months in Naples comforting her widowed sister.

Don Maland, 30, of New Port Richey, Fla., a finance officer for Ford Aerospace in Cairo, was spending Christmas touring Rome with his two brothers. One of them, Mark Maland, 37, a North Carolina attorney, was shot in the leg during the attack.

John Buonocore, 20, an exchange student from Wilmington, Del., had just completed a four-month Italian program in classics and was flying home for his father's 50th birthday.

"We are instant celebrities . . . today it's news, but tomorrow, and for the rest of my life, it's our grief to live with," Cecile Buonocore, 49, said of her son's death. "I thought it was all just a bad dream and I'd wake up and see my son alive."

In Madison, Fred Gage and his father, Frederick H. Gage, a board member of The Capital Times, are so well-known that people refer to them as "Fred K." and "Fred H."

Gage's father had also been general manager of WIBA, a radio station once owned by the newspaper, where he was the play-by-play announcer for University of Wisconsin football games.

The younger Gage was a world travel, often jetting off to Hawaii, Europe and the Far East. He was frequently accompanied by his uncle, Capital Times publisher Frederick Miller, and Miller's wife Violet.

They had been with Gage in Rome, but left for Florence while he set out for Amsterdam.

At the progressive newspaper founded in 1917 by Gage's grand-uncle, William Evjue, reporters learned of Gage's apparent death from a wire-service report as they were putting together the Saturday paper.

Other assignments were quickly dropped as they sought comments from Gage's friends, but many were hearing the news for the first time and were too upset to talk.

Editor Zweifel made the toughest calls himself: to Gage's father, who was visiting relatives in Michigan, and to publisher Miller in Florence, who identified the body in Rome yesterday. But the lack of official confirmation left editors with a tentative headline: "Madison's Fred K. Gage Feared Dead in Rome Terrorist Attack."

"He was a very adventurous young fellow with a great sense of humor," said Elliott Maraniss, former editor of The Capital Times. "He knew he was there on the board because of his family and he accepted it. He didn't impose himself on anyone."

Gage had tried to persuade his roommate, Jim Cowan, to join him on the Rome vacation, but Cowan told The Capital Times that he couldn't afford the trip. He said that Gage "always had this fear of being hijacked or running into terrorists or traveling in countries where that kind of thing happened."

Cowan said Gage, an avid golfer and skier, "read five newspapers a day and was always up on things. He loved life. He loved women."

Gage joined the newspaper board, where his sister is also a member, in 1980, and worked part-time for the family's charitable foundation. Friends say he was a wealthy young man who dabbled in many fields.

Gage tried his luck as a farmer for several years, growing corn and other crops, and used his trust income to buy real estate properties. Last summer he started a small company that made $60 designer sunglasses and promoted them with funny radio ads.

His friend and attorney, Dan Mathews, said Gage "would see it on these MTV videos" and decided that hand-painted sunglasses "were the new fad going around."

"He was a very gregarious person and liked dealing with people," Mathews said. "He didn't go to college, but he was a very intelligent, self-educated person. Everyone knew Fred."