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Evacuees Land In Baltimore

The first evacuees from battle-scarred Lebanon arrived in the United States on Thursday, tired but relieved to be far away from window-shattering bombs and fiery explosions.

About 150 people were aboard the Omni Air International DC-10, which landed at 6:30 a.m. at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport outside Washington. The passengers traveled from Cyprus to Manchester, England, and then to Baltimore in about 12 hours as part of a massive evacuation effort.

"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, Mich., 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.

Martha Khayat, who was staying near the heavily targeted Beirut airport, said she didn't sleep for days because of the noisy, ground-shaking bombardment.

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

Her evacuation, along with her 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, began with a 12-hour ride on a cargo ship with no food, water or place to sit to Cyprus, where they caught the plane. They were headed to New York on Thursday to be with family.

"From the very beginning I wanted to leave, but there was no way out," she said, while expressing her gratitude for eventually getting back to the United States.

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.

Her 11-year-old daughter, Amani, said she felt safer now that's she's back in America. "I saw a lot of smoke and fire and I heard a lot of bombs and explosions," she said, standing next to her brother, 6-year-old Marwan.

Amal Kazzaz, who had been visiting relatives in Lebanon, said she was saddened to see the country she has fond memories of under attack.

"It's the grave of the Middle East, that's what I call it now, if they keep going this way," the Richmond, Va., resident said.

Maryland is expecting as many as seven more flights into BWI. Three flights were tentatively scheduled, with one possibly arriving at about 1:15 a.m. another at 2 a.m. and another at 5:30 a.m., said Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Officials said an estimated 8,000 of the 25,000 U.S. citizens in the country wanted out. The Orient Queen cruise ship arrived in Cyprus earlier Thursday carrying about 1,000 Americans.

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.

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

"It was very smooth and not scary at all," said Cindy Awaijane, describing her travels, which included a helicopter ride to Cyrpus before boarding the airplane.

Fady Lamaa, who was reunited with his wife and two young children, said the evacuation was handled well.

"We really thank everybody for all the effort they went through," he said.

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.

Maryland made medical care available for the evacuees, said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the USO opened its airport lounge. Telephones and a place for people to drop off children briefly to give parents a chance to make travel plans were available. But most of those arriving asked only for help making connecting flights to their homes.

Family members waited anxiously at the airport for the evacuees to disembark.

When Sandie Choucair, of Abindgon, Md., last spoke to her husband as he visited his mother in Beirut, she said she could hear explosions in the background.

"I just thought I was going to die a 100 times," she said. "It was an awful, awful experience to have to go through it."

This is thought to be the first repatriation in Maryland since a planeload of citizens passed through BWI following the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Several days after the bombings, about 220 people, most of them embassy personnel and their families, arrived at BWI from Pakistan after the U.S. ordered private citizens and most embassy and consulate personnel to leave after receiving warnings that the lives of the estimated 6,700 Americans in Pakistan could be in danger.