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First U.S. evacuees from Lebanon return home

The first plane carrying U.S. evacuees from Lebanon landed early Thursday in Baltimore, as anxious relatives and friends gathered to greet the dozens of weary travelers.
David Merhige, one evacuee from Lebanon, holds up a newspaper to make a point about destruction in the nation as he arrives in Baltimore Thursday.
David Merhige, one evacuee from Lebanon, holds up a newspaper to make a point about destruction in the nation as he arrives in Baltimore Thursday.NBC News
/ Source: The Associated Press

The first Americans evacuated from battle-scarred Lebanon arrived home Thursday, tired but relieved to put behind them terrifying nights of heavy bombings and house-shaking explosions.

“It’s the grave of the Middle East, that’s what I call it now, if they keep going this way,” said Amal Kazzaz of Richmond, Va., who had been visiting relatives in Lebanon when fighting erupted between Hezbollah militants and Israel.

About 150 people were aboard the Omni Air International DC-10 that landed at 6:30 a.m. at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport outside Washington. The airport is expecting as many as seven more flights, and a Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman said three of them were tentatively scheduled overnight.

Officials said an estimated 8,000 of the 25,000 U.S. citizens in Lebanon wanted out, and about 2,600 have been evacuated since Sunday. Many have been transported to Cyprus, with the State Department arranging chartered flights to the United States.

‘Everybody’s still in danger there’
Martha Khayat said she, her 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son had to take a 12-hour ride to Cyprus on a cargo ship with no food, water or place to sit. From there a plane took them to Manchester, England, before they were flown to BWI.

Khayat was grateful for the help: “From the very beginning I wanted to leave, but there was no way out,” she said.

The family had been staying near the heavily targeted Beirut airport, and Khayat said she didn’t sleep for days because of the noisy, ground-shaking bombardment. More than 330 people have been killed, most of them in Lebanon, since fighting began July 12.

“I had to open all the windows because I thought the windows were going to blow,” she said.

“I saw a lot of smoke and fire and I heard a lot of bombs and explosions,” said Khayat’s daughter, Amani, who added that she felt safer now that she’s back in America.

Khayat and her children were headed to New York on Thursday to be with family, but her husband, Marwan, stayed behind. She said she didn’t know when he would be able to leave and was worried about him.

“Everybody’s still in danger there,” she said.

Swarm of journalists
After going through customs, the evacuees trickled calmly into the waiting area where a swarm of journalists waited to speak with them. Passengers said they were grateful to the U.S. government for getting them out of what they described as a chaotic environment.

New Orleans resident Joseph Baher, 18, said he was glad to get out at all.

“I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to get out because the Israelis bombed the airport repeatedly,” he said.

Many of those on the plane said they were Lebanese-Americans who had been visiting family or friends in Lebanon.

“Everybody was so glad and really eased to be back home, because as soon as you were on the plane you felt like you were relieved,” said Sami Lahan, of Detroit, who returned from Beirut with his wife and daughter.

Like others on the plane, he described terrifying nights of bombing that shook homes and rattled windows. “You never know when they are going to strike,” he said.

U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey D. Feltman said the evacuation to Cyprus would swell to up to 2,000 Americans a day, both by sea and by helicopter. The Orient Queen cruise ship arrived in Cyprus earlier Thursday carrying about 1,000 Americans.