HOUSTON, DEC. 9 -- Twenty-one Americans held hostage by Iraq arrived in the United States early today to the cheers of nearly 200 relatives and supporters.
The crowd, some waving small American flags, applauded and cheered as the hostages started down the stairway at Ellington Field onto the tarmac. Once off the plane, they were escorted to the nearby U.S. Coast Guard hangar.
"God bless America!" said former hostage Scott Nelson of Los Angeles. He said he had been held at a munitions plant about 35 miles south of Baghdad, and was treated well.
John Remington of Redondo Beach, Calif., who worked for an American architectural firm in Kuwait, said, "We were treated fine once you accept the fact that you're being held against your will."
The Iraqi parliament on Friday approved President Saddam Hussein's call to free all foreign captives.
The hostages flew to Houston with John Connally, a former U.S. treasury secretary and former Texas governor, and Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt. The two flew to Baghdad last week with $500,000 worth of medical supplies as a goodwill gesture.
Seven of the hostages' relatives and three U.S. Embassy employees were also on board the corporate jet. A 22nd hostage also on board when the plane left Iraq, Peter McCleod, a British subject, got off during a refueling stop in Ireland.
Connally, who had tears in his eyes as he watched the former hostages greet their relatives, said that he and Wyatt did not tell State Department officials about their planned trip to Baghdad, nor did they ask for their assistance in securing the hostages' release.
"We knew they would try to discourage us," Connally said. "We didn't want to be discouraged." Connally noted that State Department officials had discouraged hostages' relatives from traveling to Baghdad.
Wyatt is chairman of Coastal Corp., which provided the jet and paid for the medical supplies. The oil company also arranged Houston hotel rooms for the hostages' families and will provide flights home for the entire group, said Coastal spokesman Jim Bailey. None of the hostages works for Coastal, he said.
Wyatt and Connally secured the captives' release before Saddam announced that all foreigners would be released.
Connally said he and Wyatt advised Saddam that a release of hostages at Christmastime would be a show of compassion. Connally said Saddam replied, "You will not go home with an empty plane." But filling the plane became difficult because of bureaucratic delays in obtaining exit visas. Connally said the hostages who accompanied him made it on this flight only because they were able to get clearance first.
Wyatt said the Iraqi government had donated $30,000 worth of fuel to fly the plane home because Wyatt was forbidden by U.S. economic sanctions to buy fuel directly from the Iraqis.