By the time the Italian liner Achille Lauro had reached Alexandria, on the fifth day of a Mediterranean cruise, its 755 passengers had settled into the pleasant routine of shipboard life. There were Ping Pong tournaments, shuffleboard games and lazy afternoons around the pool. In the evening there were dinner and dancing followed by midnight buffets, and every night a troupe of Polish dancers put on a ballet performance.
Among the American passengers was a group of eleven old friends from New York City and northern New Jersey. Mostly in their 60s and 70s, they liked to vacation together on the Jersey shore and sometimes called themselves "the beach people." On Sunday, the night before the 23,629-ton Achille Lauro reached Alexandria, they celebrated the 59th birthday of Marilyn Klinghoffer of Manhattan. It had been her idea that they should all take the eleven-day cruise from Genoa to Naples, Alexandria, Port Said, Ashdod, Limassol, Rhodes, Piraeus, Capri and back to Genoa.
Next morning, when 666 passengers left the ship for a day of sight-seeing and shopping in Cairo, Marilyn and her husband Leon, 69, stayed aboard. A retired appliance manufacturer, Leon had been confined to a wheelchair after suffering two strokes during the past three years. Another member of the group, Mildred Hodes, of Springfield, N.J., had planned to join her husband Frank on the Cairo trip, but at the last moment she changed her mind. That decision very nearly cost Mildred Hodes her life.
Few of the passengers had noticed the four Palestinians who had boarded the ship at Genoa. They kept to themselves and did not take part in any shipboard activities. One of the Achille Lauro hostesses later recalled asking the young men their nationality and receiving the improbable and barely intelligible reply, "Norwegian."
Once his passengers had disembarked at Alexandria, Captain Gerardo De Rosa ordered the anchor raised, and soon the Achille Lauro was sailing for Port Said, at the northern approach to the Suez Canal, under a brilliant blue sky. + There, late that evening, he was scheduled to pick up the passengers who had gone to Cairo and proceed to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Exactly what happened next is not known, but it seemed that the four Palestinians intended to remain quietly aboard the liner until it reached Ashdod. There, according to this theory, they would launch a terrorist attack, seize Israeli hostages if possible, and demand the release of 50 Palestinians, including many from their own organization, the Palestine Liberation Front, who were being held in Israeli prisons. But something went wrong--probably the chance discovery of their weapons and ammunition by a member of the crew. According to the Italian news agency ANSA, they later told Italian authorities that they had not intended to take control of the ship at all but had done so after a waiter spotted them cleaning their guns.