Pastor An Minh Phan, his wife and six of their seven children stood in the middle of the Trans World Airlines terminal at Dulles International Airport, tears streaming down their faces. Their arms were firmly locked around one another as the Vietnamese family broke into a joyous chorus of "Jesus Loves Me" in their native language.
They had just been on the receiving end of what the McLean minister described as "a miracle."
"I couldn't sleep last night, I was so nervous and excited," Phan said as the car sped from National Airport to Dulles last Friday. In the morning, Phan and his wife Nang Thi Vo and four children had become American citizens in Fayetteville, N.C., where they had come into this country six years ago. That afternoon, they were reunited with the three children they had been forced to leave behind as the final American planes hurriedly left their hometown of Kontum, South Vietnam.
In April 1975 as Saigon was falling, Phan, who ran an orphanage in Kontum, realized that if he and his family were ever going to make it out of the country they would have to leave immediately. The town was crumbling from heavy North Vietnamese artillery shelling.
Earlier in the week, he had sent three of his youngest children to his mother's home in Danang, 130 miles away. But because of the distance and continued bombing in the region, it became impossible to get those children back before leaving the war-torn country.
At first his wife refused to go without all seven children. "I never thought we'd see them until we go to heaven," Nang Thi Vo Phan recalled. Her husband told her they would return within a few days to find the children. "It was the only way she would leave," he said.
Phan, his wife, four of their seven children and all 26 children from the orphanage fled to a plane waiting outside the town.
An Minh stood with his eyes glued to the window in the far corner of the airport terminal. His palms were sweating, he was clasping his hands and fidgeting nervously as the minutes ticked by. The plane was 15 minutes late.
After the citizenship ceremony, three of the four children who had immigrated with their parents -- Henry (Hoi Minh), 20; Paul (Hai Minh), 18; and Susan (Huong Thi Minh), 9 -- had driven from Fayetteville "as close to the speed limit as we could . . . well, we cheated a litte," Henry said, in order to reach the airport in time. Their parents had flown back to Washington. Juanita (Hoa Thi Hong), 22, the oldest of the seven Phan children, returned to Atlanta, where she works for the Church World Service; she plans to be home today to celebrate Christmas with the family.
The last time 9-year-old Susan saw her brother Hien Minh, now 16, and twin sisters Huyen Thi Minh and Hang Thi Cam, now 14, she was 2 1/2 years old. "I'm scared and embarrassed," she said as she waited for the plane to arrive. "I don't really remember them. I might look strange to them."
Finally, the moment came. The children rushed into the waiting arms of their parents, sisters and brothers. Susan grabbed Huyen Thi Minh's arm and did not let go the entire van ride home to McLean.
The airport scene was so emotional that it brought tears to the eyes of several military men in a crew of 60 waiting for their plane at the next gate.
Until Friday, the Phans had had no verbal communication with their children. They had written letters, using a code they had devised so that if their letters were intercepted, only family members could understand the full meaning. "We knew that anything we wrote was going to be inspected," Henry explained.
"I can't believe that the communists just let them go," said Henry, a junior at the University of North Carolina. "We always wondered if we'd ever see them again, but we never gave up hope."
Hien Minh, who was 10 in 1975, is now as tall as his father. The twins, whose parents remembered them as petite 8-year-olds, are becoming women in their teen-age years.
"In my mind, I've always dreamed of this moment," Huyen Thi Minh said in Vietnamese, with son Henry translating. As she sat in the sparsely decorated house on Calder Street in McLean, she said, "There was always doubt that we would ever be together again, but I fought my doubts."
"We usually didn't have enough money to go to school," Huyen Thi Minh, one of the twins, said of their life after their parents left Vietnam. "Only the children of communist war veterans could go to school."
"Instead we worked selling cookies, candies and lemonade that we made ourselves," twin Hang Thi Cam added. "We sold them mostly to the soldiers."
Huyen Thi Minh said the major change in their native country in the six years since her family left was that Western and South Vietnamese practices were prohibited. "They tried to burn our books and magazines -- anything related to the old government or the Americans."
Hien Minh said he didn't have much trouble with the communists. "They tried to train people to think and act like communists, but I just remained neutral. I didn't accept their teachings. I just listened and behaved, all the while thinking about my family."
Arriving in the United States brought new experiences for the children. On the way from the airport to their McLean home, the twin girls asked their mother to explain the white covering on the ground. They had never before seen snow.
They also learned their parents' new names. During the citizenship ceremonies that morning, An Minh had taken the name of David, "because of King David -- he obeyed God and the law," he said. Nang Thi Vo had selected Linda "because I have a friend in the United States named Linda, and this was my way of saying I love her," she explained. The children automatically become U.S. citizens because their parents are citizens.
And one of the first things the Phan family planned to do was replace the open-toed sandals the children were wearing.
Although the Phans are a Baptist family, the children's return had been arranged by the resettlement services of the National Catholic Conference in Washington.
"I think it is marvelous evidence of the kind of intergroup cooperation that ought to be in evidence all the time," said Dr. William Cumbie, executive director of the Mount Vernon Baptist Association, where David Phan works as a minister.
"This is a big day," Phan said. "Praise the Lord. Amen."
And it was a special Christmas present for David and Linda Phan, who celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary today.