The trickle of Americans evacuated from the Persian Gulf reached Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday as a jetliner carrying 140 former hostages and their dependents arrived after an exhausting two-day journey from war-ravaged Kuwait.
As an airport bus brought the passengers from their Lockheed jumbo jet parked on the runway to a reception area in a bunting-draped hangar nearby, children pressed their noses to the bus windows and waved to waiting reporters. One woman, who gave her name only asDiane, kissed the ground when she embarked.
"I love America," she said. "I feel safe, free and home where I belong."
Aside from a large number of state and local officials, only a small crowd of citizens turned out to greet the released hostages. Raine Mullan, a Phoenix, Md., resident, waved two small American flags as a few evacuees walked into an airport lounge. She was joined by a half dozen other people.
"I was surprised more people didn't show up, but I wanted to come to show my support for them," Mrs. Mullan said.
Elizabeth M. Tamposi, a State Department official, said, "We're deeply concerned that many of these people were forced to leave behind their husbands and their fathers. We're continuing to make arrangement for charter flights -- hopefully later this week."
"It's great to be here," said a female returnee from Wisconsin who gave her name only as Karen. As she spoke, she held her 17-month-old son, Nawaf, in her arms while he nuzzled her neck.
The Wisconsin woman and other former hostages recounted terror and uncertainty in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Karen, 30, said her two other children had seen Iraqi soldiers shot by resistance fighters as well as burned bodies in the streets. "My children have seen things you wouldn't see on television."
Karen and her children left behind her husband, a Kuwaiti computer programmer who she said was barred from leaving the country.
Like other Americans, Karen said she had been in hiding in recent weeks, fearful of being discovered by Iraqi soldiers or of being turned in by neighbors. She passed the weeks, she said, in a mixture of fear and boredom.
Karen said she left her shelter only three times and only disguised in a black chador, the traditional dress of Moslem women. She said food was in short supply. "Nobody has seen fruits and vegetable for ages," she said.
The chartered L-1011 America Trans Air jetliner was greeted at 5 p.m. by more than 300 federal and state workers and volunteers who were on hand to assist the returnees with no-interest loans as well as offers of shelter, food, travel and counseling.
A former hostage who gave her name only as Angel said that Kuwait City had been reduced to a "ghost town." She and her 13-year-old daughter had been in Kuwait visiting her brother when Iraq invaded. Since then, she said, she had disguised herself as a Kuwaiti national.
She said that she listened to foreign radio broadcasts and that that was how she learned that an evacuation flight from Kuwait would be leaving last Sunday morning. The flight went to Baghdad and then to London. The hostages spent the night at Gatwick Airport there before leaving for Baltimore yesterday morning.
Other hostages, who had been keeping in close contact with the beleaguered U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, said they had been called by U.S. diplomats and informed that an evacuation flight was being prepared.
Diane, an American from Milford, Conn., who is married to a Kuwaiti and had lived in the country for 10 years, said Iraqi soldiers were "stealing everything" and destroying the country.
"Our Safeway is bombed," she said. "Our Safeway is completely destroyed."
Diane said that Iraqi soldiers were stealing tires from cars and were looting schools. Overwhelmed by the availability and wide variety of goods in Kuwait, the Iraqis seemed to be stealing without even knowing what they were taking, she said.