"I'm Warren Christopher. Nice to have you back."

Standing on a rain-streaked runway, the Carter administration's deputy secretary of state spoke this sentence and other words of welcome 52 times in the early morning hours of Wednesday as the free hostages filed out of an Algerian airliner and ended their ordeal of captivity.

The former hostages presented a collective picture of joy. Still apparently apprehensive about their tentative freedom, the 50 men and two women smiled broadly as they were greeted by Christopher and other U.S. officials and then moved calmly into the airport VIP lounge to wait for an hour before boarding U.S. Air Force medical-evacuation planes for a flight to a U.S. air base near Frankfurt, West Germany.

Seen for the first time by a worldwide television audience out of the control of their Iranian captors, all the Americans appeared alert as they moved away from the red and white Air Algerie Boeing 727 that carried them from Tehran and Athens. Some waved vigorously toward reporters and cameramen.

The aircraft drifted down from a dark Mediterranean rainstorm that had delayed their arrival for 25 minutes. It touched down at 1:20 a.m. [8:20 p.m. EST]. The aircraft door swung open five minutes later and after a brief delay, the three-man Algerian negotiating team that broke the 14 1/2-month deadlock walked down the steps.

Then Algerian physicians and other officials who had flown back with the Americans came in a second wave of movement. Finally, the two women hostages, Kathryn Koob and Elizabeth Ann Swift, closely followed by charge d'affaires Bruce Laingen, walked eagerly down the stairs to freedom, 444 days after Iranian extremists seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took them captive.

Standing beside Christopher in the runway receiving line was Ambassador Ulrich Haynes, who greeted one smiling former detainee by saying, "I'm the American ambassador."

"You're wonderful," the freed hostage said."No," the ambassador shot back, "you're wonderful."

The normally taciturn Christopher savored the final moments of one of modern history's most difficult diplomatic tasks with small smiles and carefully modulated praise for the prickly Arab nationalists who run Algeria in ways that frequently conflict with American policy, but who have now gained a giant debt of gratitude from the United States.

"I have the great honor and privilege in affirming that you are back home and safely in our hands," Christopher told the hostages. "This event answers our prayers."

Christopher particularly praised Algerian Foreign Minister Mohammed Benyahia, who began the brief transfer of custody ceremony in the VIP lounge by saying that Algeria had agreed to the mediation role "with the full awareness that it was a heavy one and with the desire to accomplish a duty dictated to us by the exercise of our international obligations."

The Algerian news agency subsequently distributed an unofficial translation of a message sent by former president Jimmy Carter to Algerian President Chadli Benjedid in which Carter expressed "the immense debt of gratitude which the people of the United States have contracted to you and your collaborators."

"The united States will never forget it," the Algerian text quoted Carter as having said. "We thank you profoundly for the important help that you have given us in our efforts."

While waiting for the short declarations by Christopher and Benyahia that formally marked the transfer of the Americans from Algerian to American control, some of the hostages chatted eagerly with Algerian television officials in the departure lounge. Foreign journalists were not permitted in the lounge but the dialogue could be heard on the television broadcast.

The freed hostages appeared to be in good spirits and good physical condition, at least on a first quick viewing.

The freed hostages were divided into two groups and moved out to the C9 Nightingale aircraft waiting on the runway to carry them on the 2 1/2-hour voyage to Frankfurt. During the flight they were to be served a Thanksgiving-type meal of roast turkey.

"God Bless America," one of the hostages shouted as he boarded one of the U.S. aircraft.