Edwin Davis was elated when the State Department called last Saturday to tell him that his daughter was on board one of the flights ferrying Americans out of Kuwait. Then the official at the department's Kuwait task force read off her name. It was not Davis's daughter.
"Mistakes are going to happen," said a State Department official, who called the job of dealing with thousands of harried relatives "a logistical nightmare."
"People have been through hell," said the offical, who asked not to be identified. "They're angry; they're not angry at me, at the Department of State, they're just angry. It's undifferentiated anger."
Ever since Iraqi tanks poured over the border into Kuwait six weeks ago, some relatives of Americans trapped in the two nations have been complaining about the State Department's treatment of family members.
From busy phone lines to rude officials to contradictory or misleading information, these relatives have said the department seems inept in dealing with worried kin. State Department officials, who have been swamped with 50,000 calls since Aug. 2, say the task of dealing regularly with thousands of loved ones makes it impossible to keep everyone happy.
Other relatives have praised the department for its efforts.
"They're helpful as much as they possibly can be," said Sarrah Amos, whose husband is an oil worker held captive by Baghdad. She said the department calls almost every day, usually before noon. "I feel like they're doing everything they can. I understand the circumstances."
Barbara Hoffman, who arrived in Charleston, S.C., last weekend after being forced to leave her husband in Kuwait, feels differently. Hoffman said the State Department never called to tell her daughter in McKinney, Tex., that she was among those departing Kuwait, despite the fact that Hoffman filled out at least five forms en route giving the name and phone number of her daughter. Several reporters broke the news to the family.
"This is ridiculous, I can't believe it," Hoffman said the other day. "It's getting downright insulting."
Before her return, Hoffman said, her daughter called the hot line and was told by a task force official, "Why don't you stop calling here and just watch CNN? That's where we get our news."
The criticism harks back to the department's handling of the bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which was sharply rebuked by a presidential commission in May for failing to help relatives of victims deal with the tragedy.
A senior State Department official said that since the Lockerbie bombing, there has been a "hypersensitivity to doing it right" when dealing with victims' loved ones.
But they concede that the sheer enormity of the crisis has overwhelmed the department. The volume of calls -- 600 an hour on the day after the Iraqi invasion -- has slacked. But officials say the stress of dealing with shaken relatives proved too much for some working the phones, who have had to be replaced.
"We have been trying since day one of this crisis to call every family at least every 48 hours," said the official, adding that relatives of known captives and other special cases are called daily.
Several families have complained, however, that phone calls are sporadic and uninformative.
"It doesn't seem that one knows what the other is doing," said Carole Jernigan of Cottage Grove, Minn., whose daughter has been living with her Kuwaiti husband in that country for several years. "When you press the point, they say, 'We'll call if we know anything.' Please, I'm a mother, I can't wait around. If we're bothering them, too bad, we pay taxes for something."
Spread across four rooms, the task force is made up of about 200 people, including retired foreign service officers called back for their crisis expertise, who are briefed before each shift. "It's also frustrating when we don't have any new information," admits an official.
Many relatives have complained they are provided little information about evacuation flights until the planes land. Officials say limited communication with embassy personnel makes it impossible to find out exactly who is on the flights until they arrive in the United States.
"People think this a regular airline," he said. "It's not."
The current hostage situation is unlike any the department has faced before.
When the U.S. Embassy in Iran was seized in 1979, the families of the 52 captive staff members were flown to Washington within three weeks for a briefing session. But even with only a few families, some relatives were upset.
"They owed the families a little more than they gave," said Dorothea Morefield, whose husband was a hostage then. Like family members of hostages still held in Lebanon, she complained about the paucity of information released.
But Doris Tracy, whose son, Edward Austin Tracy, has been in Lebanon for 1,422 days, and who has outlasted several officials assigned to work with her, doesn't have any complaints.
"I think they do as much as they can," she said.
Family complaints are predictable and understandable, according to John H. Stein, deputy director of the National Organization for Victim Assistance. "One of the things that happens to us in a situation like this is we get angry," Stein said. "People get angry at the police . . . not the abusing spouse or the perpetrator of a crime."
State Department officials in recent months have become much more receptive to ideas on how to improve procedures, he said. The department is about to mail to relatives a booklet his group has prepared to help family members and former hostages.
That comes a little late for Davis, whose daughter Martha Al Ghareeb went with her Kuwaiti-born husband, Mahmoud, and two teenage children to visit his family for the first time in the couple's 20-year marriage shortly before the invasion. When the long-awaited State Department call turned out to be a mistake, Davis said, "It tore us up. It was rough."