ATLANTA, DEC. 4 (FRIDAY) -- The hostages were free at last, and 11 members of Buddy Levens' family were waiting as he burst out of the night into their waiting arms.

"It feels great," Levens, the first hostage to reach waiting relatives and the 44-year-old administrator of the prison hospital, said.

As relatives watched on television, applause greeted the signing of the agreement ending the hostage crisis here. And there were explosions of joy among the waiting families and tears and hugs as each loved one emerged.

"I saw him! I saw him!" squealed Carlis Ross, wife of James Ross, 26, a corrections officer. "He was one of the first ones, and he even looked like he had shaved and everything." Here on the grounds of the Atlanta penitentiary, perhaps 200 relatives of the 89 men still held hostage by Cuban detainees waited into the early morning, hoping they could believe that as it entered what would have been its 12th day, the crisis and the agony would end soon.

It didn't, and past midnight some dozed uneasily in their chairs and against walls.

A bit before 9 p.m., one of the 35 Bureau of Prisons officials sent in to help care for them walked into a room in a two-story building that houses overflow offices for the bureau's regional headquarters. The volume on the two television sets was lowered, and the few dozen family members in chairs against the wall and cross-legged on the floor quieted for his announcement.

"The good news is that the basic agreement is intact," the official said. "The problem is, the detainees are coming back with some questions about this and that. . . . It could drag out a couple of hours and it could drag out until morning."

Come midnight, the waiting went on. The families didn't know it, but the detainees were waiting for the arrival of the witnesses they had invited to the signing.

Against the wall sat Evangeline Ella, 35. Dr. Benjamin Degracia, her father and a prison physician, was a hostage. "Hi, Grandpa, I'm a straight 'A' first-grader. Love you! Rachel," said one of the many yellow balloons loved ones had written on with magic markers.

"We can't see what's happening, and that's the worst thing," Ella said. "Until I see my father, I still have this fear. Even though they tell you they're fine, I can only believe it when I see him in person."

When the agreement was signed, lla stood and began to sob gently. When her father appeared on the television screen, she leaned against the wall. Her sister-in-law hugged little Diana Degracia and said repeatedly, "It's Grandpa! It's Grandpa! Do you see Grandpa?"

Like many other relatives, Ella, her brother Benjamin Degracia Jr., his wife and three daughters, had been coming daily to the special area in the prison where facilities to accommodate them had proliferated: trailers, tents, mobile homes. Food was prepared down the hill in the minimum-security prison camp.

Hopes had become simple if profound. Said Amber Letner, 10, "I just want to tell my daddy I love him."

Among the hostages released before this morning, there was a common desire. "We offered them free motel rooms," said Doug Lansing, warden of the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, who was sent down to coordinate care for the families. "Nobody wanted to do it. Everybody wanted their own beds."