ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE -- A few days ago they were huddled in the darkened stairwells and shuttered homes of Kuwait City or held at oil refineries and missile sites in Iraq. But yesterday 156 of them came home, touching down here in the rosy light of sunset as friends and family cheered them down the runway.
Among those in the waiting crowd, with U.S. flags waving and party horns tooting, was Michelle Werner of Dundalk, who led a chant of "Daddy, daddy," for her toddling children, Edward III, 3, and Stephanie, 2.
Their father, Edward Jr., had telephoned the night before from Frankfurt, Germany, after completing the first leg of his homecoming flight. The plane that arrived here carried the first large load of Americans to leave Iraq since President Saddam Hussein announced last Thursday that he would release all of his hostage "guests."
Mr. Werner's first words to his wife, she said, were simple and to the point: "He said, 'Freedom,' and 'I love you.' "
Mr. Werner had been trapped in Kuwait since Iraq's invasion Aug. 2. Mrs. Werner said he had been working for a fence company on a 30-day visitor's visa.
"It was very hard," Mrs. Werner said of her husband's absence. "We're going to make up for all the lost time."
Also waiting eagerly was G. J. Tilke, a construction engineer who had gotten out of Kuwait with his wife last month through the intercession of former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. But part of him was still captive, he said, as long as his friends were still hostages.
On board the flight was his friend and colleague Chris Folson of Philadelphia.
A few moments later, as the arriving Pan Am jumbo jet scuffed up a puff of blue smoke on the runway, Mr. Tilke pointed to the plane and said, "Now I finally feel released."
About 300 friends and relatives waited next to the runway as the jet landed.
The crowd was nearly matched by a horde of photographers and reporters herded into a roped-off section of the tarmac.
The first man to emerge from the jet, who was not identified, waved from the top step, then raised a camera to shoot a picture of the hundreds of cameras shooting back.
Another passenger stopped to affectionately pat the runway as soon as he reached the ground.
One man was carried off the plane by another and then was loaded into a wheelchair.
L One of the few women on board carried a cat in a small cage.
As Mr. Werner headed down the steps, there came a shout from the Dundalk crowd. "There he is, he's got a pea coat on!" shouted one friend. They held aloft signs, including one made by the children that read: "Daddy I love you. Daddy I need you."
As the passengers stepped to the runway, they were escorted to four buses, which whisked them to another building on the base, and then off to a gym to meet their families.
Security was tight, and military police aggressively kept reporters from speaking to the returnees and many family
But for some family members, the tension of months of waiting left them too drained to attend the homecoming. Among them was the Kuwaiti-born wife of Ernest Alexander of Philadelphia, who stayed home because she was "stressed-out and nervous about this," said a family friend, Robert L. Woodson of Silver Spring.
Mr. Alexander, an attorney in Kuwait City, sent his wife and two children to the United States just after the invasion. The two children -- Faras, 5, and Nabeel, 9 -- came with Mr. Woodson to greet their father.