Homecoming

Relieved Americans leave war behind and arrive in Baltimore

July 21, 2006|By CHRIS YAKAITIS | CHRIS YAKAITIS,SUN REPORTER

There were graduate students, film directors, high school teachers, teenagers and toddlers. Most brought only a few changes of clothes. Men's faces were covered with stubble. No one carried more than a single piece of luggage. Some left their fathers behind.

By Marine helicopter, cargo ship, charter plane and commercial airline, about 140 Americans escaped war-torn Lebanon and returned home to America after a trip that covered more than 5,000 miles and, for some, lasted 33 hours.

Their plane landed yesterday morning at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Hundreds more were expected to arrive there overnight.

For some, the evacuation meant a vacation cut short. For others, it forced a separation from home, family and friends. But all of them witnessed a stunning surge of fighting that has ravaged the southern half of Lebanon and sent the country spiraling back to its violent past.

"The morning we woke up and the airport had been bombed, everyone was overwhelmed and utterly shocked," said Stephen McInerney, a 31-year-old studying for his master's degree at the American University of Beirut. He had lived in Lebanon for two years.

"It was a beautiful country, wonderful people that had a remarkable recovery from the horrible civil war they endured until 1990," he said. "To see so much of that undone in the past week is the most devastating, difficult thing I've ever seen happen."

Safely back on American soil, the evacuees began planning their return to hometowns as far-flung as Los Angeles, New York, Providence, R.I., and Williamsburg, Va. State Department officials said three additional flights were scheduled to arrive at the airport overnight, bringing at least 500 more Americans home from the war zone.

The first evacuees arrived about 6:30 a.m. yesterday at BWI's international terminal and were swarmed and outnumbered by reporters, photographers and television cameras.

Many avoided the rows of local and national news crews cramming the southern half of the terminal. Evacuees ducked their heads and walked briskly to meet relatives or taxis. Others voluntarily stepped up to podiums, recounting their two-day odyssey to the U.S. and describing intense bombings that lit up the sky and shook houses miles from their targets.

Eleven-year-old Amani Khayat, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., had lived with her family in Lebanon for three years. She went to school with American and Lebanese children, and she had begun to learn Arabic. Her father had just finished fixing up their home in a mountain village a few miles from Beirut's airport.

"That's where they started bombing, so you could hear everything," Amani said. "You could see lots of flashing lights from the bombs going off, and you could hear big explosions."

Amani returned with her mother, Martha, and 6-year-old brother, Marwan, who silently milled among reporters and tangles of microphone wires. Her father stayed in Lebanon.

"He's coming later on. He'll find a way to come," she said.

Amani's pink backpack, with a plush bunny zipper-pull, was stuffed with a few T-shirts; everything else had to be left behind.

"I don't really think we're going to go back if the bombing doesn't stop," she said. "There was really nothing to do. We knew that we just had to leave."

Some of the evacuees were airlifted by Marine helicopters from the American Embassy in Beirut to Cyprus, a 15-minute ride. Others, like McInerney, weren't so fortunate: They spent 16 hours on a Norwegian cargo ship that carried them across the Mediterranean Sea without food, water or seats.

As they scrambled to find their way out of Cyprus - McInerney had already booked a flight to London - word slowly spread about the charter flights being provided by the U.S. government.

McInerney, who has lived abroad for eight years and was headed to New York, tried to keep in touch with fellow students and Lebanese friends left behind, but said power had been knocked out in much of Beirut. Cell phone towers outside the city had been destroyed by bombs, he said, and at one point a 100-pound container loaded with anti-Hezbollah propaganda - presumably dropped by an Israeli jet - had crashed into a soccer field 60 yards behind his dormitory.

"It exploded when it hit the ground, and all the fliers were in a big pile," he said. "If it had gone about 20 yards in the other direction, it would have gone through dorm windows. ... It certainly would have killed someone."

The first half of the return flight, aboard a plane from Thomas Cook Airlines, took the evacuees to Manchester, England. After a four-hour layover, passengers transferred to a chartered Omni Air International jet for the seven-hour trip to Baltimore.

Elias Merhige, a film director from Beverly Hills, Calif., said the half-filled planes were initially quiet. But as the trip wore on, murmurs sprang up as passengers began talking about Lebanon and Middle East politics.

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