As the latest group of hostages freed from Iraq made its way toward the Baltimore-Washington International Airport hangar that served as a makeshift welcome wagon yesterday, more than 100 state employees and volunteer workers stood applauding.
But the group of state employees, many of whom wore yellow ribbons in honor of the 161 hostages who returned yesterday, were not just casual observers. Even before the applauding had stopped, the employees got down to the work some ofthem had prepared for a month to do -- helping former hostages who needed everything from plane tickets home to a shoulder to cry on to get their lives back in order.
Customs agents, immigration officers and counselors greeted the returning hostages at tables in the hangar, and special registration desks were set up to help the passengers -- part of a group of 438 former hostages that arrived in London Sunday night after a 6 1/2 -hour flight from Baghdad -- with money, tickets home and medical care.
Cots were ready for children in need of naps; crayons provided forthose too excited to sleep.
Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.S. State Department asked the office of Gov. William Donald Schaefer to develop a plan to accommodate returning hostages at BWI airport.
The governor designated the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the Maryland Department of Human Resources to coordinate the efforts of various state agencies and private organizations -- including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Air Transport Association -- to address a range of needs.
Helen A. Szablya, a DHR spokeswoman, said a free telephone bank was set up to allow the returning hostages to call family and friends, and that four computer terminals were set up so that travel specialists could help the weary travelers book connecting flights home. Signet Bank established a desk to provide loans to the former hostages.
State officials held a trial run Friday, setting up a mock greeting facility at DHR headquarters in the state office complex in Baltimore, according to Michael G. Ritter, assistant director of emergency services for the Maryland Red Cross.
Altogether, the state and privateeffort involved some 250 to 300 individuals. "It's been smooth and well-coordinated," Mr. Ritter said of the state's repatriation effort.
Maryland officials said they had no figures to indicate how much they have spent for the repatriation effort. The U.S. government, which last year spent $373,150 to repatriate U.S. citizens who had been evacuated from trouble spots, will reimburse Maryland for its cost in helping the returning hostages.
But federal officials in turn will require the returning hostages to repay the U.S. government for any loans and travel expenses, such asthe costs of hotel accommodations as they make their way back to their homes, once they are in the United States.
Governor Schaefer toured the facility earlier in the day, expressing confidence that the host team was ready to take care of the former hostages' essential needs, but insisting that the facility be brightened with flowers, tablecloths and other human touches to help the returnees feel more at ease.
"Everything they can possibly need I think has been taken care of," the governor said. "I think we are ready."