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In any event, they decided to attack. Just four hours after the Achille Lauro had left Alexandria, the four Palestinians, armed with Soviet-made submachine guns, hand grenades and explosives, seized the ship. Firing their weapons wildly, the terrorists used the ship's loudspeaker system to summon all passengers to the dining room. "We were getting ready for dessert," one of the American passengers, Viola Meskin, of Union, N.J., later recalled, "when suddenly we heard gunshots, and someone yelled, 'Get down on the floor!' We heard moaning and groaning. The bandits had struck men in the kitchen, we were told. Then they started to threaten us and show their power. They had hand grenades in their hands, and they would remove the pins and play with them. They constantly had their guns ready for shooting. We were all on the floor." Later on, the gunmen separated the Americans and Britons from the others and placed gasoline cans close to them. Carina Tubby, 21, a dancer in a sixmember British troupe on board, was told by the gunmen that if their political demands were not met, she and the other Britons would be killed along with the Americans. Says she: "I remember thinking I didn't even know what their demands were, and that they might kill me for something I didn't know anything about. It seemed so unfair." On the bridge, one of the gunmen fired more shots and then ordered De Rosa to sail in a northeasterly direction toward the Syrian port of Tartus. A hijacker brandishing a submachine gun kept De Rosa under constant guard.
That night, as the ship was cruising about 30 miles north of Port Said, De Rosa made contact with Egyptian port authorities by radio and told them what had happened. The hijackers, who had identified themselves as members of the P.L.F., demanded the release of the 50 prisoners being held in Israel. Among these was Sami Kuntar, a well-known terrorist who in 1979, with three others, had staged an attack on the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, killing three people. If their demands were not met, the hijackers of the Achille Lauro warned, they would blow up the ship.
At about that time, the passengers who had spent the day in Cairo arrived in Port Said. There would be a delay, they were told, because of heavy traffic in the port. Not until midnight did an Italian consular official advise them that the Achille Lauro had been hijacked. Buses then took them back to Cairo, where they arrived after 3 a.m. For them, the waiting had just begun. In the lobby of the Concorde Hotel, Frank Hodes remarked the next day, "We are sitting here in total silence. We are getting no information at all." Charlotte Spiegel of New York City added, "We have no idea what's going on. I only want to feel my friends in my arms again."
On the ship, the sense of panic increased as the gunmen became more desperate. Neither crew nor passengers seem to have considered trying to overwhelm the terrorists; they were too well armed and too erratic, and besides, very few people realized that there were only four gunmen on board. "From the way they were behaving," a diplomat who visited the ship later observed, "it seemed more likely that there were 20 hijackers rather than four."