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When a U.S. surface-to-air missile from the cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes tragically brought down an Iranian commercial airliner over the Persian Gulf last week, killing 290 innocent civilians, relations between Iran and America deteriorated once again from hostile to poisonous. Looking on helplessly, trapped by events they could not control or escape from, were the nine American hostages believed to be held captive in Beirut by a band of Shi'ite terrorists loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini. According to one report, the terrorists' spiritual leader, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, urged that the hostages not be harmed. There were other, ominous, reports that one or more of them would be killed in retribution, and the men's fate had never seemed more precarious.

Caught between hope and despair, the anguished families of the missing men braced once more for the news that they dread. After learning of the Airbus disaster, Peggy Say, sister of Terry Anderson, the longest-held U.S. hostage, said, "It was one of those rare times when I realized it was possible that Terry might die."

For Say and members of the other hostage families, waiting out the months and years of their loved ones' imprisonment has been a trial by uncertainty, and they have dealt with it in various ways. Maj. Robin Higgins, a Pentagon public affairs officer who is the wife of Lt. Col. William Higgins, abducted last Feb. 17 while serving as head of a U.N. peacekeeping unit, has refused all interview requests. Say, on the other hand, has tirelessly lobbied members of Congress and spoken to any group that will hear her. Marilyn Langston, daughter of hostage Frank Reed, fearful that her father will think his family didn't do enough on his behalf, has amassed a collection of news clippings and videos documenting the efforts of the hostage families to win the release of their relatives. And Jean Sutherland, wife of hostage Thomas Sutherland, keeps his favorite food in the freezer of her Beirut home, perhaps as a way of persuading herself that someday he will be free.

On the following pages, relatives of eight of the hostages talk frankly about the terrible mix of fear, confusion, anger and determination that has marked their lives since the kidnapping of their sons, husbands and fathers. "In a way," says Becky Steen, daughter of hostage Alann Steen, "it's like we've all been held hostage."

FROM A SENSE OF BETRAYAL, A CRUSADE IS BORN

After the debris from an Iranian Airbus carrying 290 people hurtled into the Persian Gulf, Peggy Say found herself hoping desperately that her brother, Terry Anderson, held by terrorists since March 16, 1985, would not be the disaster's next victim. Rumors of his impending execution began circulating almost immediately after the downing, and Say tried to console herself with what his captors, the Islamic Jihad, had once announced: That unless a threat of execution were accompanied by the release of a photograph, the threat should not be taken seriously. Still, after three years of crusading for Anderson's freedom, Say knew that there were no guarantees: "If Terry were killed, I would have to question our Administration's role, or lack of it, in prolonging the hostages' captivity and putting them in a position to be endangered by outside acts. I would always feel frustration and anger over his death, but the ultimate blame would have to be on the people who actually did it."

Since the capture of her brother, chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, anger and frustration have been Say's constant companions. She has seen hopes for his release dashed at the 11th hour, and has had eagerly awaited meetings with Middle East leaders canceled abruptly. She has experienced apathy and, at times, hostility from the American public, and she believes the U.S. State Department has been guilty of neglect. Yet none of this has deterred Say, 47, from continuing her fight. "The reality is that I have a brother whom I care about very much, and I have to do what I can to get him out," she says. "What is my choice? To say, 'Terry, I'm sorry this happened to you, but I have a life to live?' "

Say has phoned the State Department daily in the hope of receiving fresh news and met once with President Reagan and Vice-President Bush. With the help of the Associated Press, which has paid all her related phone bills and traveling expenses, she has spoken to church groups, grade school assemblies and innumerable reporters, despite the State Department's wish that she would simply keep quiet. "The job of the families is to try to get enough people to care enough to keep [the hostages] alive," she insists.

Because she has challenged the government's strategy of quiet diplomacy, her message inflames almost as often as it inspires. A veteran of call-in radio shows and the TV talk circuit, Say is often blamed for prolonging her brother's captivity. "Most of the time people say that Terry shouldn't have been [in Beirut] in the first place, and that if I had just kept my big mouth shut, he would have been out a long time ago," she says. The criticism intensified after the Iran-contra scandal, when members of the White House staff were caught attempting to swap arms for the release of some of the hostages. "The impression was that we [the hostage families] drove Reagan to it," she says. "I got letters saying, 'Your brother should die and you should die.' But every ex-hostage has told me with no uncertainty that it is publicity that kept them alive."

Far from crediting the Administration with exhausting every means to obtain the hostages' freedom, Say feels she and her brother have been betrayed. "The first year, I really waved my flag and kept quiet like they wanted," she says. "The State Department told me that they didn't negotiate with terrorists and I believed them." But when talks between the U.S. and Syria led to the release of 39 Americans aboard hijacked TWA Flight 847 in July 1985, and a Soviet spy was swapped for journalist Nicholas Dani-loff the following year, Say felt deceived. She has considered the Administration an adversary ever since.

The special bond that Say feels for her brother was formed only within the last 12 years. "When I left home at 17, he was just a 10-year-old, pain-in-the-behind little brother," she says. Brother and sister rediscovered one another in 1976 during one of Terry's leaves from his assignment in Beirut. Say, by then divorced, was enrolled in college in Florida and was the co-founder of a coalition to help migrant workers. "We were surprised to find out that we were both idealists," she says. "We wanted to change the world and make it a better place."

After Terry's abduction, Say dropped out of school and moved back to their hometown, Batavia, N.Y., with her second husband, David, a general contractor. Eventually they were joined in Batavia by Terry's Lebanese girlfriend, Madeleine Bassil. Seven months pregnant at the time of Terry's capture, Madeleine gave birth to their daughter, Sulome, on June 7, 1985. The two now live in Cyprus, while Anderson's older daughter, Gabrielle, 13, lives in Tokyo with her mother, Mihoko. (Mihoko and Terry were being divorced when Anderson was abducted, but the divorce cannot be finalized until his release.)

If and when Anderson is given his freedom, he will be stunned by all that has taken place in his absence. In 1986, both his father, Glenn, and his brother, Glenn Jr., were diagnosed as having cancer; they died within four months of each other. Say dreads the thought of telling her brother. "It's going to be one hell of a shock," she says. "The only letter we got out from him was all about family and a reunion with Dad and the brothers and sisters." Though she is comforted by reports from ex-hostages of Terry's extraordinary emotional and physical stamina, she met recently with the three French hostages who were freed last May 4 and was startled by their appearance. "Jean-Paul Kauffmann looked almost transparent to me, and his hands looked like the hands of a corpse," she says. "Yet it helped prepare me for what I'm going to see with Terry."

Still confident that she will see her brother alive again, Say is already preparing for the reunion. After three years in Batavia, she and her husband have moved to a cabin on a lake in southwest Kentucky, where they hope to escape the pressured existence they have known since Terry's abduction. "I want to be in the best shape we can be in to help Terry," says Say. "I know there will be a happy ending for us. But I just pray something positive comes out of this whole ordeal. If Terry gets out and then someone else gets kidnapped, all the pain and suffering will have been for nothing."

'I CAN'T HELP WONDERING IE HE'S THINKING OF ME'

"Of course there are times when I get depressed," says Fahima Reed, the Syrian-born second wife of hostage Frank Reed, 56. "But I try to be with people constantly. It helps that I have family nearby." Fahima, 38, teaches English at the International School in Beirut, where her husband was director when he was captured on Sept. 9, 1986. Her most pressing concern is the welfare of their 7-year-old son, Tarek. Until recently, she could not bring herself to tell him what had happened to his father. "He is a happy child, and I didn't want to spoil that," she says. Instead, "I told him his father was traveling." Then two weeks ago Tarek's schoolmates told him that his father was a hostage. The teary-eyed boy came home and told Fahima, "Mommy, my friends said Daddy's not coming with us [on a visit to the U.S.] because he's been kidnapped. What is kidnapped?"

In Massachusetts, Reed's American family is also keeping a vigil. Only weeks before he was kidnapped, Reed was planning to leave Beirut with his new family, and his 89-year-old mother, Leota, had readied rooms in her Medford home for their stay. "I don't think she'll sleep soundly until this is over," says Frank's daughter Marilyn, 31, who lives in nearby Maiden with her husband, Robert Langston, and their two children. The younger one, Stacy, 4, has never met her grandfather. "I've taken plenty of pictures," says Marilyn, "so when he does get out he can catch up on things." Her parents were divorced when she was 13, and she lost touch with her father, who moved to Lebanon in 1978. But as she grew older, she longed to renew the relationship. Before marrying in 1980, Marilyn got her father's Beirut address and wrote him, "not expecting anything...yet I checked the mailbox every day, hoping. When I got a long letter from him a month later, I crumbled." A correspondence began, and Reed asked Marilyn and her husband to move to Lebanon. They declined. "I couldn't live in a place where you have to dodge bullets in the street and worry about your kids getting shot," she says.

Last week's Persian Gulf flare-up hit her family hard. Earlier, they had gotten a call from CBS saying there were rumors that the hostages would be released over the holiday. "I got goose bumps from one side of my body to the other," recalls Marilyn. "Then we heard about the plane being shot down. I couldn't believe it."

Marilyn's sister, Jacqueline, a 26-year-old postal clerk, was only 7 when their parents were divorced, and she spent little time with her father after that. Now, she says, "I regret not seeing him more when I could have. All I think about is him getting released, even though I wouldn't know what to say to him after so long." The seeming indifference of others to the hostages' fate leaves her seething. "The last time there were rumors about a release of the hostages, I said something at lunch like, 'Gee, they might get the hostages out,' " she recalls. "Five people were sitting there, and not one of them looked up from their food or newspaper. I wanted to stand up and scream, 'Somebody pay attention!' "

'WHAT DO YOU SAY TO A KID WHOSE FATHER IS A HOSTAGE?'

Robert Polhill, a business teacher at Beirut University College, had lived in Lebanon for five years, his second wife was Lebanese, and he thought he was well assimilated into his adopted home. He reassured his mother, Ruth, a retired librarian in Fishkill, N.Y., and his two sons, Brian and Stephen, that the dangers of being an American in Lebanon were grossly exaggerated.

In January of last year, Ruth Polhill found out that her son was wrong. "I was bustling around trying to get ready for a party," she recalls, "when a neighbor came to the door with tears in her eyes and said, 'Haven't you heard?' " The news was bad: Polhill and three colleagues had been abducted by the Islamic Jihad.

Brian, 21, was sitting in his dormitory at the State University of New York at Binghamton when his brother called him with the news about his father. "It was the day before the Super Bowl, and the Giants, his favorite team, were going to play," says Brian. "They won the championship the day after he was kidnapped."

Brian says that he, Stephen, 24, and their mother, Johanne Gorey, who divorced their father in 1976, considered moving in together but decided it was more important for Brian to stay in school. "I got a lot of support from people who should be considered saints," he says. "Others didn't know how to handle it. I mean, what do you say to a kid whose father is a hostage?"

Robert's mother, Ruth, is the family's chief keeper of the flame. Five weeks ago, with Johanne's help, she observed her son's 54th birthday quietly. "She knew it would be a hard day for me, and she made sure I had something to do every second," Ruth says of Johanne. Then she speaks of her son. "I think about him hourly," she says. "I try to imagine what kind of temperature it is there today." She stops, then adds quietly, "He never disappointed me."

Neither has Johanne, who phoned Ruth after hearing of the Airbus disaster and offered to take all of her calls from reporters. Characteristically, Ruth chose to take them herself. "That's all right," she told her ex-daughter-in-law. "I've got to learn to face up to this."

A TIGHT-KNIT FAMILY BECOMES EVEN TIGHTER

When American hostage Benjamin Weir was released in September 1985, he delivered a letter to the family of Thomas Sutherland, the acting dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, who remained in captivity. Sutherland's daughters, Ann, now 29, Kit, 28, and Joan, 24, still laugh at what their father had written. "Dad wanted to know how the brakes were holding up on Joan's car," reports Ann, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. "And he was very worried whether Ray [Ann's husband] and I were going to ride from Berkeley to Fort Collins, Colo., to visit my sisters, on motorcycles. He was full of questions."

Captured on June 9, 1985, Sutherland, 57, has missed many irretrievable occasions. There was Ann's marriage in 1986, the birth of her daughter, Simone, his first grandchild, in March 1987, and Ann's graduation last month from the University of California at San Francisco, where she received a Ph.D. in anatomy.

Photographs were taken on these occasions, but no pictures can document the fortitude with which the Sutherlands reacted to Tom's abduction. Sutherland's wife, Jean, 54, (left, in 1980) set the tone. "From the beginning, Mom maintained the determination not to panic, and we fed off that," says Kit. "If she does cry, she does it in private." Support from friends, relatives and strangers was immediate, she adds. "The phone stayed busy for hours." Still, there are moments of self-doubt. "You feel guilty," says Ann, "that you're having a normal life while your father is sweating it out in Beirut."

Sutherland had flown home to attend Kit's graduation from the University of Colorado in the spring of 1985. On June 9 he returned to Lebanon alone, while Jean, now an English instructor in Beirut, stayed in Fort Collins to finish her doctoral dissertation in English literature. On his way from the airport to his on-campus home, Sutherland was stopped by several gunmen, who sprayed his car with automatic-rifle fire and dragged him off, making Sutherland the third AUB employee to be taken hostage.

Sutherland had been recruited by the university in 1980, but he didn't accept the job until 1983. In that interval, he discussed the dangers with his family. "I remember thinking at the time, 'I'm not sure this is a good idea,' " says Ann. "But he thought it would be a real adventure. He liked going to new places and meeting new people. He knew the risks but he wasn't scared off."

When American University Hospital director David Jacobsen was kidnapped in the spring of 1985, Sutherland asked university administrators for guidance. "They told him they couldn't tell him to stay or go," reports Ann. Her father decided to stay, she says, because "he loved that job more than any he'd ever had." Jean, who returned to Beirut in September 1985, blames no one but the kidnappers for her husband's fate: "The American Embassy and the State Department don't really have a responsibility to extract us from situations that we got into when we made the decision to go [to Lebanon]. We are very, very aware that we [went] at our own risk."

Still, the Sutherlands have welcomed the government's help. Jean and daughter Kit met in September 1985 with Vice-President Bush. Later, Joan met with former National Security Affairs chief John Poindexter and his aide, Oliver North. "We were asking for their support," she says, "and we felt we got it."

For the Sutherlands, like the other hostage families, there isn't much to do but wait. In her Beirut home, Jean keeps frozen mince and tatties, a Scots dish of hamburger spread over mashed potatoes, her Scottish-born husband's favorite meal. The three American hostages who were released in 1985 and '86—Weir, Father Lawrence Jenco and Jacobsen—reported to the family that Sutherland's spirits were good and that even in captivity he kept up the Scottish tradition of celebrating poet Robert Burns's birthday. Says Kit: "Our motto, so to speak, is that we go along with strength and hope but no expectations." That, of course, is easier said than done. "Someday soon Mom will call and say, 'I have someone here to talk to you,' and Dad will be on the line," says Ann. "We've always been a close family, but now we're even closer. We realize how precious family really is."

A SON WHO WAS LOST BEFORE HE WAS TAKEN

Doris Tracy is 80 years old, a widow who describes herself as practically a recluse. She spends much of the day watching TV in her daughter's two-story house in Burlington, Vt., where she resides. Doris takes no part in the efforts of hostage families to gain the release of their loved ones. Her son, sometime writer Edward "Ned" Tracy, 58, was taken into captivity on Oct. 21, 1986, but he was apparently lost to his family many years before that.

Tracy graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in economics, then enrolled in Penn's law school. Doris says her son flunked out and later left the U.S. to see the world. In the past two decades Doris has seen her son only once. She remembers him as a go-getter who went off track somewhere, drifting from job to job and continent to continent. (He was reportedly writing a children's book when he was captured in Beirut.) Were he released tomorrow, she believes, he still would not want to come home. "He wouldn't even call me unless the State Department said they'd pay for the call," she says.

After Tracy left Vermont, according to Doris, he seldom wrote to her or his brother, Frank, who died three years ago, or his sister, Maria. He did tell them that he had married a German woman, had three children and divorced, but Doris doesn't know the whereabouts of any of her grandchildren. She doesn't know how her son wound up in the Middle East, but she thinks he was remarried there before his abduction.

She does not know more than this because from October 1975 to September 1985 she did not hear from her son at all. "I felt abandoned," she says, "but I figured he'd do as he wished. I wondered if he was alive." When he wrote to her at last, he never explained why he had been out of touch so long. "He just said he'd been sick. He was odd. He's puzzling."

For all her apparent bitterness, or apathy, there is one indication that Doris does, indeed, feel concern for her son. Next to her telephone there is a calendar, and on it she marks off the days since he was kidnapped.

A CHEERFUL PROMISE THAT COULD NOT BE KEPT

When life looks bleakest for Estelle Ronneburg, she remembers what her son, Jesse Turner, told her during a 1986 vacation together in Greece. "He said, 'You know me well enough that I'm not going to stick my nose out of the campus if there's any problem.' "

What he hadn't counted on was trouble coming to him. In a particularly ironic kidnapping, on Jan. 24, 1987, Turner, a math professor, and three other Beirut University College colleagues were assembled in the dean's office for a lecture on how to protect themselves against being taken hostage. But the would-be lecturers turned out to be terrorists masquerading as police. Whipping out rifles, the kidnappers handcuffed the four men and forced them into a waiting van.

Several months later, the kidnappers released a videotape of Turner. "He looked tired," recalls Ronneburg, 67, a Boise, Idaho, bank clerk. "He looked really sad." Before last Christmas, Turner, now 40, appeared in another videotaped message. "He didn't look like himself," says his mother, "but at least I knew he was alive."

Someone else who was glad to know he was alive was Turner's Lebanese wife, Bader, 35 (left, with Jesse, in 1986). On June 24, 1987, five months after he was captured, she gave birth to their first child, Joanne. The State Department phoned Ronneburg to notify her that she had become a grandmother. A few days later, Bader sent her mother-in-law a telegram confirming the good news, but the statistics were in centimeters and grams. "I still haven't figured out how big that baby was when she was born," Ronneburg says with a laugh.

Turner hasn't been forgotten in his hometown of Boise. Each Friday, a local TV station announces the number of days that Turner has been held. And the sixth-grade students at Liberty grammar school made Ronneburg 1,000 paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of good luck. Ronneburg, who is divorced from Turner's father and has since remarried, keeps a string of the cranes in her office and another draped around her son's high school graduation picture in the living room. "Any time there's good news, I can't help it but my spirits soar," she says. "Then when nothing happens, I go right back down. I've tried to learn to hang tough."

FIGHTING A FEELING OF HELPLESSNESS

On Jan. 25, 1987 Jackie Steen, a third-grade teacher in Pasadena, Calif., got the news in a phone call from her younger sister, Becky: Their father, Alann, a journalism professor at Beirut University College, had been kidnapped. "It didn't hit me at all," recalls Jackie, 27. "I accepted it with no emotion." Not until the next morning, when she saw her father's picture on TV, did the news strike home. "I broke down and cried," she remembers. "[Since then] I have thought about him every day. I think of things he'd like to do, and that reminds me he's a hostage over there and I can't do anything about it."

Jackie was 18 when her parents divorced. Three years later her father moved to Lebanon, where he met his second wife, Virginia Rose, who was teaching art history at BUC. Jackie, who is not married, saw him each summer during his regular visits to the U.S. Now she is "almost always glued to the TV," she says, though she would prefer to get her news from the State Department. "I never, ever, hear from them," she says bitterly.

That frustration is shared by sister Becky, 26, a paramedic in Santa Cruz, Calif. "I share the concern about not giving the captors what they want," says Becky, "but this quiet diplomacy stuff isn't doing anything either."

Several months ago, while preparing for her May wedding to fire fighter Jim Monday, Becky took matters into her own hands. She learned that Rev. Jesse Jackson would be campaigning nearby and phoned the candidate's California headquarters to see if she could arrange a meeting with him. It was Jackson, she remembered, who in 1983 had negotiated with Syria for the release of Navy Lt. Robert Goodman Jr. During the conversation with Jackson's aides, she happened to mention her impending marriage. According to Becky, the Jackson camp "thought it would be neat if he officiated the ceremony." He did, and the nuptials were followed by a short session with the press. Says Becky: "We looked at it as an excellent opportunity to get attention for the hostages and to send the word to Dad about our marriage, in case the captors had the heart to share the information with him."

A BROTHER'S KEEPER: SIGNS OE THE TIMES

Every morning, after he drives his wife, Frances, to her job as a wiring company inspector, Thomas Cicippio returns to their Norristown, Pa., home to update the wooden signs on his front lawn. The signs list all the American hostages in Lebanon and the number of days each has been held. By the name Joseph Cicippio is the simple notation "One of Our Own."

It was on Sept. 13, 1986, that Cicippio learned that his brother, Joseph, 57 (above, with wife Ilham, in 1985), acting comptroller of the American University of Beirut, had been abducted from the campus. Since then, Thomas, 64, a retired postal worker, has filled scrap-books with articles detailing the hostage situation, written more than 300 letters to public officials demanding help and spoken to dozens of school groups. "I guess you could say this is a preoccupation of mine," says Thomas.

In her home nearby, one of Cicippio's four sisters, Helen Fazio, 68, keeps a small radio beside her bed. "At the beginning, I used to keep it going all the time," she says. "Now I listen for a while, and if no news comes through, I just turn it off and go back to sleep."

For Fazio, the fall of 1986 was a particularly trying time. Her sister Rose Abell was dying. "She was living for Joe to come home," says Helen. "She would dream she was in Lebanon looking for him. She'd wake up and say, 'I was in Beirut again last night.' " She died that December.

In the fall of 1987, the family received a heartening call from French hostage Jean-Louis Normandin, who had just been released. "He had been in captivity with my brother for 10 months," says Thomas. "They had been held in chains but were well treated. He said Joe was very strong. It made us feel good. It was like getting the call from Joe himself."

The news that a U.S. missile had downed an Iranian jetliner last week had the opposite effect. "When something like this happens, it's a setback for the hostages," Thomas says. "For a while, we felt there was some progress. Now we just sit and wonder what's going to take place next."