Laughing and crying with joy, the former American hostages rushed as many as three abreast out of the door of their airplane and down a ramp to the arms of their waiting families here this afternoon after 14 1/2 months of captivity in Iran.
"I said, 'Welcome home, God bless you,'" said Frank Tarbell, the airport manager. The first group of Marines "saw their parents and they shouted out. . . ." Then Tarbell said he was swept up in the emotion and forgot exactly what the hostages said or did as they ran to greet their families.
The family members, who had arrived in U.S. military planes about 90 minutes earlier, lined up happily as in a reception line at the foot of the ramp as the former hostages descended.
"It was exhilarated relief," said Tarbell, describing the scene. "They showed relief and at the same time they were thanking God they were here, that it was over. It was just a time of tremendously charged emotion. I hope it doesn't sound hokey, but there was an aura of love in the air."
He added that "I've never seen my wife kissed by so many young Marines in my life."
The ex-hostages' relatives had been inside the airport lounge, and when the landing of "Freedom One" was announced they rushed out ot the tarmac and waited excitedly. Tarbell said that during the period when the relatives were alone "the air was filled with tension, but a relaxed tension. After waiting all that time, their loved ones were coming home."
The ex-hostages and their relatives, after finding one onother on the tarmac on this brilliant sunny afternoon, went inside the terminal, where a roast beef and chicken buffet was served by a local caterer.
"When they stepped out of the plane they were yelling at their relatives; they were so happy and smiling, they just couldn't believe it," said one of the caterers, Pierre Belle. He and others who witnessed the reunion and that the freed hostages were so anxious to get off the plane that they pushed through its door and rushed down the ramp two and three abreast, waving and calling to those waiting below.
"If you hadn't seen your wife for 444 days, you'd be happy, too," said caterer Nancy Del Conte. "It was exciting, you could just feel it in the air."
"They were smiling and laughing, they had really big smiles on their faces," said Belle.
After lunching, for an emotional half-hour, the ex-hostages and their relatives boarded six buses and drove to West Point, past cheering crowds waving American flags and yellow ribbons.
Local residents dubbed the flag-festooned stretch outside the airport "Freedom Road."
As the buses went out the main airport gate, several thousand people cheered and chanted: "U.S.A., U.S.A." They waved banners that read: "Welcome Home Americans" and "You Were Not Forgotten."
As their buses slowly passed the crowds, the former hostage waved; some wiped away tears.
The dramatic touchdown of "Freedom One" at 2:55 p.m. was greeted by cheers from hundreds of people gathered on hillsides overlooking the airport.
A few minutes before landing, the big sleek jet with "United States of America" on the side came into view low in the blue sky to the north.
The pilot of "Freedom One," overheard on the radio of a pilot's wife, called to the tower: "This is Freedom One. We'll enter on a left downwind. We're going visual now."
"Oh, there it is, it's right up there," said the woman, Marie White of nearby Wappingers Falls, as she hugged her niece Dawna.
The tower told the pilot: "You're in sight and all clear."
Small airplanes, many of them carrying camera crews and reporters, circled the area. "Welcome 'Freedom One,'" radioed the pilot of one of these planes. "Amen," said another pilot.
After this, the tower advised these pilots to "please keep the lines clear."
As the 707 touched down, White's 11-year-old niece said, "We're watching history."
"Oh, it's so gorgeous," said White as the plane landed.
On another hillside, at least 100 reporters and television personnel had positioned themselves for a clear, if distant, view of the reunion.
Although reporters normally like to be close to a story, today's reunion was so moving that most of them did not begrudge the hostages and their families some privacy.
"It makes life difficult, but it's manageable," said Jackie Ring, a radio reporter from Peekskill, N.Y. "I think there's a lot of quiet respect being shown, even by the press. Everyone [in the press here] is low key. You know how it is when you can't get close to a story -- you get angry -- but that isn't the case here."
Don Smith, a cameraman for NBC out of Washington, said, "What one of the [West Point] cadets said is true, it's not really a public event here. This is to get together with their families. The big public welcome will be in Washington."
Smith also noted that reporters will be able to interview the ex-hostages at a news conference at West Point Tuesday morning after they have spent time alone with their families.
Not far from Smith, Margo Jones. A public relations official locally, watched today's reunion through field glasses. "It's fantastic," she said. "I can see them now. In the beginning, I was shaking so much I couldn't focus."