Flight carrying Haitian orphans lands in Pa.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - January 18, 2010 -- More than 50 Haitian orphans rescued from post-earthquake squalor landed Tuesday morning at Pittsburgh International Airport, on their way to foster homes and eventually adoptive families after supporters of their plight used Twitter and Facebook to spread the word.
The children, some wrapped in blankets and carried off the plane and others walking by themselves and waving to onlookers, were loaded onto waiting buses and taken to UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
The 53 children, most of whom already have adoptive families waiting for them, are among the first in a wave of orphans expected to be evacuated from the shattered Caribbean nation to the U.S. and other countries.
The Air Force flight's landing shortly before 9:30 a.m. capped days of preparations and maneuvering by American caretakers, lawmakers and government officials. The orphans were cared for by two Pittsburgh-area sisters whose family and friends used social networking to let the world know they were in dire need of food, water, diapers - and a plane to ferry them out of Port-au-Prince after last week's earthquake.
The children were accompanied to Pittsburgh by Alison McMutrie, one of the sisters. Her older sister, Jamie McMutrie, stayed behind in Haiti when it became clear that a 2-year-old girl was still missing. The toddler was later found at the U.S. Embassy and Jamie and the girl are expected to arrive in Pittsburgh later Tuesday.
"I'm Ali to them, but when they're there, my sister and I are their moms. We have a family. We don't have a group of kids who just get fed ... we have a family who all love each other and care about each other. And to be asked to leave without a single one of them was just not an option," Alison McMutrie said at a news conference at the airport after their arrival.
The children, from 11 months to 12 years old, were being examined by pediatricians at Children's, hospital spokesman Marc Lukasiak said. Alison McMutrie said that none of the children were hurt in the earthquake, but that some got fevers or became dehydrated in the days following.
"The kids were in amazingly great shape," said Tom Kreier, deputy director of Catholic Charities, who accompanied the children to the hospital. There, after receiving initial medical treatment, the children were taken to a "comfort center" with food, drink and toys. They will stay there for a day or two until they are placed with foster families.
About 100 other children from their orphanage are being cared for by Dutch and French agencies.
Gov. Ed Rendell, a crew of medical personnel and several congressmen flew in the plane filled with 2 1/2 tons of medical equipment to Haiti on Monday. The plane had been cleared to stay in Haiti for only about an hour and left before all the children could be cleared.
The group left later on a C-17 military transport plane, which took them to Orlando, Fla. From there, they left for Pittsburgh on a charter jet.
Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., said Haiti's ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph, as well as the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and even the White House, all helped get the children the waivers they needed to leave the Caribbean nation.
Rendell and Altmire said getting the children out of Haiti was challenging in part because adoptions weren't in place for all of them and because records some of them were destroyed in the quake.
"In an earthquake zone where literally hundreds of thousands of people, it looks like, have lost their lives, millions are disrupted and lost their homes, the chaotic environment that's there, you can't just come in, swoop these kids up and fly out," Altmire said.
Rendell said 47 have adoption agreements in place: Forty will go to families in the United States, four to families in Spain and three to families in Canada. The other seven will be placed through the adoption system, he said.
Leslie McCombs, a senior consultant for government relations at UPMC who was also on the flight, said she'll never forget seeing the kids for the first time. The children were sitting in vans with the sisters, reaching out of the windows and waiting for help.
"We got on the van and they starting singing, they were clapping and giving us high fives. They were saying prayers," an emotional McCombs said. "It was amazing."
The children's saga played out on the Web's largest social networking sites and on blogs beginning hours after the earthquake shook the Haitian capital, destroying or damaging most buildings, killing an estimated 200,000 people and leaving 1.5 million more homeless.
Jamie McMutrie had been working in the BRESMA orphanage since 2006, and Alison followed her sister to Haiti about two years ago. They were in their car on the way to the supermarket when the earthquake struck. They were unharmed but frantic.
Through the U.S. Embassy, the McMutries quickly got word to their family in the U.S. that they were safe. Then they went to check on the children, many of whom already had adoptive families picked out in America and awaited paperwork to leave their old lives in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country for new lives in one of the world's richest.
The orphanage was so badly damaged that the sisters and the children were living in the courtyard. Food and water were scarce, and the women feared violent looting would further put them in danger.
The McMutries borrowed a cell phone and sent an e-mail stressing the need for food and water and making it clear the children could survive for only a few days. They needed a plane, they said, and stressed they would go nowhere without the children.
Their relatives and friends started tweeting and posting Facebook messages about the orphans, and contacted lawmakers for help.
"I'm so proud to bring these kids back to Pittsburgh," Alison McMutrie said. "I think I'm dreaming and I don't know when I'm going to wake up."
She said she plans to return to Haiti soon.
haitian earthquake, haiti, earthquake, rescue, gov. ed rendell, pennsylvania, pittsburgh, national/world
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