After 14 1/2 months of national preoccupation with their fate, the 52 Americans freed from captivity in Iran came home yesterday to a private reunion with their families at a small sun-washed airport in the Catskill foothills.
"All they wanted to do was kiss us," the wife of the airport manager said of the returned hostages. "They looked tired, but they were shaking our hands and kissing us -- just trying to greet everyone and touch everyone. Touch, that was the thing. They just wanted to feel the reality of being home."
Their plane, christened Freedom One, touched down at 2:55 p.m. For once in this electronic age, television cameras were banned from ringside to assure the returning Americans and their families some privacy. The public, the press and a nation of watchers could only squint at the tiny figures at least a thousand yards away.
It took most of the 52 passengers five minutes to crowd eagerly out of their plane. A few moved more slowly and had to be helped down the ramp. Then they were smothered suddenly in the embraces of their relatives. For a time, some of the former hostages stood on the tarmac and rocked back and forth in a jumble of arms, tear and laughter.
The scene became so intensely emotional, airport manager Frank S. Tarbell said, that "I could not look. I had to turn my back and walk away . . . . I felt like an intruder."
During a brief reunion in an airport terminal, the reunited families talked softly or sang patriotic songs -- "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "God Bless America" -- according to an Army officer who was present.
Then as the sun set over the snow patched terrain, home of the fictional Rip Van Winkle, the former hostages boarded six buses for a Sunday drive with their families past an estimated 200,000 cheering people who lined the 17 mile to their quarters at West Point.
Through the smoked glass of their bus windows, the returning Americans could see a profusion of yellow ribbons blooming like an early spring on everything from trees and telephone poles to pet poodles and cats along their way, mixed with American flags and welcome signs. they could see packed along that Freedom Road all the grace, glitz and grit of Americana: "Ram Iran" buttons, $3 each, a 24-foot-high Pepsi-Cola balloon, the Good Spirits Liquor Store, the South Gate Tavern and a scattering of fast-food eateries.
In Highland Falls, the village just outside West Point, on a Main Street packed with thousands, they could see 11-year-old Stacy Panzanaro of Peekskill carrying a sign that read: "It's Super Bowl Sunday: America 52. Iran 0."
The crowds, on the other hand, could see the wide grins and waves of their heroes only through the glass darkly. But it was enough.
The day's outpouring of emotion began early. President Reagan's voice faltered and Nancy Reagan cried as the president paid tribute to the hostage families' courage and dignity at the White House just before the families boarded a military jet for their flight to West Point. It was said press secretary James S. Brady, "a good day for Kleenex." [Details, Page A11.]
The president had decided not to fly to West Point so that the families could keep their reunion as private as possible.
The final homeward journey of the 50 men and two women held captive for 444 days began yesterday morning at 4:58 Washington time at Rhein Main Air Base in West Germany. There, about 2,000 American military personnel and their families from bases near Frankfurt braved frigid weather to give the freed Americans an emotional send-off.
Military bands played "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," the unofficial hostage theme, as the two blue buses pulled up to the silver jetliner.
"Home starts here," said Robert Ode, oldest of the freed hostages, as he passed along the lines of well-wishers, exchanging farewells.
The eight Marines among the former captives, in their crisp uniforms, led the group up the boarding ramp and under the yellow ribbon over the entrance, one of thousands they would see.
Freedom One, a VC137, which is a military version of the Boeing 707 commercial jetliner, is a sister ship of the president's Air Force One and was commandeered from the presidential fleet based at Andrews Air Force Base.
Earlier, at the hospital in Wiesbaden where the former hostages had spent their last four days of "decompression," banners carried the messages: "God Bless You -- Auf Wiedersehen;" "There's No Place Like Home:" "You're Free -- After All We Are Americans." Nurses sang "God Bless America" as Jerry Miele of Mount Pleasant, Pa., led the former captives out of the hospital. He was waving an American flag and wearing a new three-piece, pinstriped suit.
"I don't think words like celebrity apply to us, nor do words like heroes," mused Col. David Roeder as he left West Germany. "What happened to us was a catalyst for bringing the country together."
In Shannon, Ireland, on their refueling stop, the Americans got a typically warm Irish greeting, including a supply of Irish Mist. Prime Minister Charles Haughey welcomed Freedom One and, like and ordinary tourists, the returnees also had time for a brief spree in the duty free shop.
Even the policemen at the airport clapped, as the Americans stepped down the ramp giving the thumbs-up salute. A group of schoolchildren from Limerick waved a sign that said, "Welcome to Our American Friends."
In the airport VIP lounge, the Americans were each handed a gift of Waterford crystal and a bottle of Irish Mist liqueur, both products of Ireland.
Some of the Americans relaxed with a pint of Irish Guinness while they listened once again to the strains of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," this time blaring from the airport loudspeakers. The public was kept away by police, but the airport staff gave them a traditional Irish salutation -- "Cead Mile Failte." A hundred thousand welcomes.
As Freedom One crossed the last sea that separated the former captives from home, the families were flying up from Washington.
They arrived 1 1/2 hours ahead of the former hostages and spent the time playing cards and singing patriotic songs, according to others present.
Just before Freedom One soared into view, after a six-hour flight from Shannon, the families lined up on the tarmac for the final minutes of waiting. s
Then, after the brief and emotional reunion with their loved ones, the group moved inside the airport terminal. A buffet of roast beef and chicken was served there.
A motorcade of green and silver buses, led by fire trucks, police cars and other emergency vehicles with their lights flashing, carried the former hostages and their families onto the road to West Point. Helicopters hovered overhead. Sirens crooned.
The ride that normally takes 20 minutes took them over an hour.
Some of the people along the way sang thier own words to the tune of the rock song "Barbara Ann": "Bomb, bomb, bomb, [pause] bomb, bomb Iran."
Others expressed a contrary sentiment: "We Gave Peace a Chance," one placard read, "and It Worked."
Around a five-point intersection in Vails Gate, people abandoned their cars by the hundreds and flocked to glimpse the buses as they passed.
In Highland Falls, near the end of the route, bells rang and a packed crowd of several thousand went wild as the motorcade rumbled into view on Main Street. They chanted: "U.S.A., U.S.A., . . . ."
And they chanted, "Fifty-two, we love you!"
From the historic landing at the airport on, based on the recommendations of State Department doctors who have examined the 52 Americans since their release and at the urging of family members, officials held the crowds and the press at least a quarter-mile from the former hostages most of the day. Guards surrounded the hotel where the returnees were staying.
After 14 1/2 months of "America Held Hostage" flickering in their living rooms, most Americans were left to their own imaginings as the hostages' ordeal reached its electrifying happy climax. At this moment, the unblinking eye of television was, by official decree, discreetly averted.
The return of the hostages was in the words of one television producer, "Far and away one of the hardest stories we've covered -- ever."
Even the most hard-bitten journalists winced at the idea of invading the privacy of these families at such an intimate moment. Still, the competitive pressures of the business sent some 600 of them scrambling over the terrain like an occupation army. TV news commandeered a bluff a half-mile from the air strip that gave them a fuzzy view subdivided by tree limbs and telephone poles and lines.A fuel tank blocked the foreground.
This eyewitnessless news report interrupted only briefly a boxing match and Howard Cosell, a golf tournament and a basketball game, respectively, on the three networks. The cameras returned to the unfolding drama at West Point over an hour later, just for a moment, as the motorcade arrived at the Hotel Thayer.
Said one NBC producer: "If the security around our embassy in Iran had been as tight as the security [around West Point], we never would have had this story to cover in the first place."
The freed Americans, and their families rolled out of public view again at the 170-room hotel, a stately government-owned, civilian-run establishment on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy.
Most of the returned hostages seemed in high spirits and appeared unusually vigorous after their long flight, according to hotel manager Steve Adams.
"I had a hard time keeping the tears back," he added. "It was so damn nice that everyone was together. It was real, and true. And nothing was contrived. Nobody was pushing them anywhere or dragging them anywhere."
About 125 of the special guests wandered down to a hospitality room where TV sets were tuned to the Super Bowl, Adams said. At dinner time, all but 40 gathered in the dining room. The rest called room service.
One former hostage left immediately to fly home.Army Master Sgt. Regis Ragan rushed to Johnstown, Pa., to see his 69-year-old mother Anna, who was hospitalized Wednesday after she talked to him on the phone from West Germany. She was placed in the coronary care unit because of what doctors termed "a stressful condition" and was reported in stable condition.
At the Hotel Thayer, the rooms of the former hostages contained vases of yellow roses, baskets of fruit and handwritten notes from West Point cadets. The note to ex-hostage Jerry Miele, for example, said, "Congratulations on your safe return. . . . We are especially pleased to have you here at West Point. Welcome back to the U.S.A. and may God bless you."
More than 100 immediate family members made the trip from Washington, joining the freed 52 here for two days of privacy. Another 250 relatives remained in Washington, where the official welcome will get under way tomorrow with a parade along the president's inaugural route and a White House ceremony.
The former hostages' official schedule is empty today to give the families a chance to get reacquainted and enjoy the facilities of the hotel.
On Tuesday morning, a "voluntary" news conference is scheduled for those of the returnees who want to talk to the press. After that, the group will leave West Point about midmorning and travel to Andrews Air Force Base, where they will be met by Vice President and Mrs. Bush, Secretary of State and Mrs. Alexander M. Haig Jr., Secretary of Defense and Mrs. Caspar W. Weinberger and congressional leaders.
At 1:15, the group will leave for the White House from Andrews, traveling along Suitland Parkway and winding up on the inaugural route along Pennsylvania Avenue.
At 2:45 p.m., the motorcade is scheduled to arrive at the White House, where the former hostages and their families will be greeted by President Reagan, and will be entertained at a reception.
The families are expected to return to their home towns on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in their seclusion at the hotel, the families were offered round-the-clock service by a staff augmented to 240, including an open bar, free room service and bountiful meals prepared to order. They chose last night among five entrees: lobster, veal scallopini, shrimp, prime rib au jus, and chicken cordon bleu.
Perched on a snow-covered cliff overlooking the ice-clogged Hudson River at the southern end of West Point, the 170-room Thayer will be closed to press and public until tomorrow morning, when the voluntary news conference will be held before the hostage entourage departs for Washington.
Until then, any contact with the world outside the hotel will be strictly on the initiative of those inside.
"It's their hotel. They can do whatever they want," said hotel assistant manager Lee Curtis.
"If they want to be left alone, that's the way it will be," said an academy official. Lt. Col. Elliott Fishburne, the academy's treasurer, said, "We're preparing for them to have all the privacy they want."
The perimeter of the 54-year-old brick-faced hotel is being patroled by military police trucked in from Fort Dix, N.J., attack dogs and academy security forces.
Roads approaching the hotel's half-moon driveway have been blockaded, with armed guards posted. The Thayer Gate entrance to the 16,000-acre military reservation, located a stone's throw from the hotel next to the Village of Highland Falls, is shut for the duration.
The West Point Cadet Chapel also has been closed to everyone but former hostages and their kin.
Worship services were conducted throughout the country yesterday as Americans celebrated the day of homecoming. A large crowd began gathering outside Thayer Gate as Sunday morning services were completed at village churches. Many in the crowd carried American flags and yellow ribbons, while hawkers peddled flags, ribbons and lapel buttons.
A giant "Welcome Home" sign with two-foot high red letters was stretched over Main Street, just in front of the academy barricades.
At his home in Plains, Ga., yesterday, former president Jimmy Carter said he would not go to West Point. "I had a chance to welcome them back to freedon [in West Germany]. . . . That's been adequate and gratifying to me," he said.
The American hostages were seized by Iranian terrorists at the American embassy compound in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Negotiations for their release, and a failed rescue attempt last April, preoccupied the White House throughout Carter's final year in office.
Since the hostages were set free last Tuesday, at the same hour that Reagan was inaugurated, reports of beatings, death threats, months spent in solitary confinement and other physical and mental abuses of many of the hostages have poured out of their West German retreat.
An unspecified number of the hostages are suffering from deep depression, according to doctors who have examined them.
Americans by the millions, while aware of the returnees need for gentle handling, could not suppress an outburst of celebration at their safe homecoming.
The Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans flourished thousands of yellow bows throughout the stands. Cheerleaders for both teams ran along the sidelines trailing yellow streamers. The players wore yellow stripes on their helmets.
For three minutes, 250 firefighters in Newark, N.J., paused to observe a minute of silence for the eight American servicemen who were killed in the aborted rescue mission.
In Indianapolis, church bells tolled at noon throughout the city, at the request of the mayor.
In Bucks County, Pa., Sunday was "Welcome Home to America Day," and the county commissioners authorized the flying of a giant yellow ribbon from the courthouse flagpole in Doylestown.
In Chesapeake, Va., home of former hostage Cmdr. Donald Sharer, the mayor asked that yellow ribbons be displayed at all business and outside all homes until Feb. 1.
In Vermont, Gov. Richard Snelling asked the churches to ring their bells 52 times.
In Hermitage, Pa., where one American flag has been raised for each day the hostages were held, one last service was planned. On Feb. 14, former hostage Michael Metrinko of Llyphant, Pa., will extinguish the "eternal flame" lit by his parents last February on the 100th day of the hostages' imprisonment.