Clutching pets, luggage, a teddy bear and each other, 47 exhausted dependents of U.S. Embassy personnel in Kuwait City reached American soil yesterday evening after being forced to leave their relatives behind in Iraq or Kuwait.
Arriving at Andrews Air Force Base at 6:15 p.m. after an emotional flight from Turkey via France, the group of 20 women and 27 children boarded buses and was whisked away to a base recreation center for customs inspection.
Only one of the travelers, the wife of the U.S. consul in Kuwait, made a statement, thanking President Bush and others who worked "to bring us safely to the United States."
"Our hearts are left in Kuwait and Baghdad," said Luz Marina Colwell, who began to choke up, "with all our husbands, members of our family, our private American citizens and members of the international community left behind."
Colwell added, "We all feel very strong but . . . we have to keep being strong and keep our hearts very high."
She said members of the families had "learned to know each other, to care for each other, and we became a big family."
Many of the children in the group looked sleepy as they descended a staircase from a chartered DC-8 to the Andrews tarmac. But others appeared jubilant, with one boy in a tie-dyed T-shirt exchanging a high-five with an Air Force officer. Several mothers held small children with one hand and luggage with the other, and one mother held a teddy bear.
Air Force personnel who boarded the plane before the passengers got off said the group was happy but tired. "They kept checking their watches and figuring it was 1:30 a.m., their time," said an officer.
The dependents had left Kuwait several days ago bound for Baghdad and then for home after Iraqi officials ordered the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City closed. Iraq claims Kuwait is no longer a separate nation, following Iraq's lightning conquest of the country.
Many U.S. Embassy officials in Kuwait had left with the dependents, though Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell and a small group of employees remained because the United States has refused to recognize the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait.
In Baghdad, however, the U.S. diplomats in the group were detained, leaving a group of 55 dependents who were allowed to proceed overland to the Turkish border for the return trip to the United States. At the border, three college-age men in the group were not allowed to cross and were returned to Baghdad.
The remaining 52 dependents were taken to a joint Turkish-American air base at Incirlik to begin their journey home, which included a refueling stop in Paris. A State Department official said that in Paris, five of the 52 chose to remain in Europe for now.
Initially, Air Force officials at Andrews had agreed to allow the news media into the base recreation center with the dependents. But State Department officials banished reporters. No State Department official could be reached for comment about the change in plans.
Alex Kreth, an attendant on the flight from France, said passengers cried when they left Paris on their final leg home; cheered when they were told they had crossed into U.S. airspace; and hugged each other when the plane landed at Andrews.
"It was just overwhelming," he said.
Shortly after the plane took off, Kreth said, "one lady toasted over the PA system. She said she was very happy getting the children out, but sad they couldn't bring their husbands with them."
He added that the flight crew had asked French authorities for champagne for the flight "but because of our French, they brought us just one bottle." Nonetheless, the bottle was passed around for toasts and "we had almost a sip for each," Kreth said.
Inside the center, waiting family members were cordoned off in one area and were not allowed to approach their relatives, whom they could see across a large room, until the processing was complete. Family members shouted out names and personal messages as the returning dependents entered the hall.
The returning dependents were issued plane tickets for the rest of their journey to their homes and money if they needed it. Some received military orders. Two buses carried many from the group to the Westpark Hotel in Rosslyn, where gathered for dinner.
Outside the community center, a Maryland family waited to take home a woman who was returning. The woman escaped with her 7-month-old baby girl, born in Kuwait, but left behind her husband, who worked in the embassy. They would not give their names.
"You have mixed feelings," said the woman's sister-in-law. "You're happy to have her back, but sad that she left her husband."
A young girl asked the returning woman whether she was happy to be back in the United States. The obviously fatigued woman sighed, "Yes."
Staff writers Peter Baker, Brooke Masters, Daniel Beyers, Patrice Gaines-Carter, Fern Shen and Daniel H. Pink contributed to this report.