CHARLESTON, S.C., SEPT. 9 -- Nearly 300 American women and children trapped in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait for more than a month arrived here tonight, ending an ordeal they described as both tedious and terrifying.
"We're happy to be here," said Pat Nicholson, of Boise, Idaho, when she emerged from the chartered Northwest Air Lines Boeing 747 jetliner and stepped up to the crowd of well-wishers and reporters waiting to greet the passengers.
"The Iraqis broke into our apartment building and took every American out of there," said Barbara Hoffman, of McKinney, Tex. "For some reason, they didn't take us. We were in hiding for five weeks. I would never go back. Never."
The flight touched down about 6:10 p.m. at Charleston International Airport, where the evacuees were processed through Customs and then given airline tickets, hotel reservations and cash by Red Cross volunteers.
Officials here said the plane, which combined two smaller flights of evacuees, left Amman, Jordan, at 3:52 a.m. local time with 305 passengers. The plane stopped in Frankfurt for refueling, and then in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after several passengers became ill. Eight passengers stayed in Halifax.
The first passenger off the plane here was Paulette McCauley, of Apex, N.C. She was flown immediately by helicopter to a local hospital because she is in the seventh month of a difficult pregnancy, but her condition was not immediately known.
The flight was the third to arrive in the United States with dozens of Americans who previously had been unable to leave Kuwait or Iraq. The first 700 American, European and Japanese women and children were evacuated from Baghdad over the Labor Day weekend. One flight arrived Sept. 2 at Dulles International Airport with 47 Americans aboard, and 65 other Americans flew to Frankfurt at the same time and made their way home separately. A flight carrying 24 Americans arrived in Newark Sept. 6.
The crowd of greeters in Charleston was fairly small, and many of the evacuees hurried away to catch one of the remaining flights out of Charleston tonight.
Among them was Jimmy Hawkins, a 30-year-old petroleum engineer from Dallas, who stopped only long enough to describe his four-day journey across the desert.
One of about a dozen men on the flight, Hawkins said he dressed in Arab clothing and hitchhiked from Baghdad to Jordan. Twice, he said, he encountered Iraqi soldiers who attempted to turn him back to Baghdad. But he said he bribed them, and they let him pass.
Sandra Williams, of Warren, Ohio, said she hid with Kuwaiti friends and kept in touch with the U.S. Embassy until she was notified that she could leave.
"The worst part was you never knew what was going to happen next," said Williams, 27, who has worked for Kuwait Aviation for nine years.
Evacuees described how Iraqi soldiers alternately brutalized foreigners and bartered away their weapons for food. Musallam Rizaiqi, a native of the United Arab Emirates who accompanied his American wife, Maria, back to the United States, said Iraqi soldiers threatened to rape their maid in their apartment.
He said he also saw a man who had resisted the soldiers and had been shot in the head.
While some evacuees praised U.S. officials for getting them out of Kuwait, others were less charitable. Hoffman was clearly upset.
"My daughter has been calling the State Department six or seven times a day," she said. "Yesterday, they hung up on her. She got no help from them at all. They wouldn't even confirm that I was in Amman. I was on TV. She said, 'I saw my Mom on TV' and they said, 'We can't confirm that.' "
Hoffman, who arrived in Kuwait to teach school the day before the Aug. 2 invasion, said her husband is ill and should have been evacuated in place of one of the healthier men put on board her flight.
But, she said, when she appealed to officials in Kuwait to release her husband, who has had open-heart surgery and requires daily medication, she was told that only women and children were allowed on the flight.
"I want to call Jesse Jackson and have him get my husband out because George Bush isn't getting him out," Hoffman said.
More than a week ago, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced that women and children among the foreigners in Kuwait and Iraq were free to go.
The State Department estimates that there were between 1,200 and 1,300 Americans in Kuwait before the evacuation began, but officials said they do not have a precise tally of the Americans remaining in the region.
Among the relatives who gathered at the airport here to greet the plane was a little girl holding a crayon-colored sign that said: "Welcome home to the land of the free."
Williams said the worst part of the ordeal was not knowing if the evacuation was for real, or an Iraqi hoax.
"They called us and told us to go to the pickup point," she said. "It was scary. We weren't really that confident."