PITTSBURGH — Fifty-three orphans from earthquake-ravaged Haiti arrived at Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital Tuesday, many wrapped in blankets and carried by their caregivers.
They range in age from a few months to 12 years old, with about half between 7 and 12, according to Clare Kushma, a spokesman for Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh.
The rescue mission came in response to messages last week from sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie of Ben Avon, who said this month's devastating earthquake endangered the health of 130 children in their care at the BRESMA orphanage in Port-au-Prince. The plight of the children drew wide coverage by TV news reporters for days.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell accompanied a medical team from several Western Pennsylvania medical facilities on the plane to pick up the children.
The rescuers' heads still were spinning as Rendell and Ali McMutrie addressed the media throng at the airport.
"It's awesome. I think I'm dreaming," Ali McMutrie said.
Rendell said that after hurdling numerous legal obstacles to get a rescue plane to Haiti, the mission nearly collapsed when Haitian and U.S. authorities were reluctant to allow all 53 of the children to leave the island.
"We had an hour slot on the runway. While we were working (travel arrangements) the plane had to leave," Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.
At that moment, all but seven of the children had permission to board the plane because their adoptions were nearly complete. Forty have waiting families in the U.S., three will be adopted in Canada and four others were headed to Spain.
However, the McMutrie sisters were adamant. They would not leave Haiti unless all of their orphans, including the seven without adoptive homes, were with them.
"I called the White House and told them I had two constituents who wouldn't leave those kids," the congressman said.
"Over a period of hours it was cleared by the National Security Council. Everyone at the State Department who was involved with this issue dropped what they were doing," Altmire said.
"To leave without even one of them was not an option," Ali McMutrie said. "They're all my children. My sister and I are their moms. We have a family that all love each other."
For a week after the quake, she said, she and her sister with their orphans lived in a driveway with hundreds of other people, mostly children.
As the journey to their new lives began, the children were joyous from the ride from the U.S. embassy to the airport.
"They were singing, giving high-fives, they were praying with us," said UPMC spokeswoman Leslie McCombs. "It's been an emotional mission since day one. It's unfathomable what they're going through."
Dr. Mary Carrasco, a pediatrician on the rescue flight, was profoundly moved at how everyone from her medical colleagues to customs officials were not only willing but eager to help.
She had been chosen for the mission for her experience as director of A Child's Place, a Pittsburgh Mercy Health System center for traumatized children, and as director for international and community health at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. When she began recruiting colleagues, not a single available person hesitated.
"That really surprised me, because the assumption was that this was potentially dangerous," said Carrasco, who had had six hours of sleep scattered through the previous 72 hours.
Customs agents in Florida and soldiers in Port-au-Prince held and fed babies, an entire Republic Airways flight crew volunteered for service, and a Transportation Security Administration worker checking them through an airport sobbed, saying she wished she could go with them.
The aid team had hoped the children would be waiting at the airport when their plane landed, but paperwork delays prevented that, she said. Their original plane was forced to return, and the relief crew camped out in a secure section of the tarmac, where the children were eventually brought to them.
The medical team had prepared for a worst-case-scenario of seriously ill children. But, though Carrasco didn't know what had happened in the 24 hours before she met them, someone had apparently delivered food and water to the orphans. A few were dehydrated or had minor illnesses, but the children arrived at the airport in far better than expected condition, she said. Together they waited until they were loaded onto a military transport plane. During the flight many of the older children played in the large open center, where cargo was normally stored.
"They are a very well-behaved bunch of kids. They didn't seem to be crying or upset," she said.
Dr. Rick Saladino, chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Children's, went to the airport and rode back with a group of orphans on one of the buses.
"Most of them were interactive, smiling, trying to figure out the electronic phones during the bus ride," Saladino said. During the ride, each child had a "buddy" — either from the Red Cross or Catholic Charities or the hospital, and many of the younger ones were clinging to an adult when they entered the hospital's emergency entrance.
Brian Knavish, marketing and communications coordinator for the American Red Cross's Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter was in the ER with some of the Red Cross's volunteers Tuesday. He saw a little girl, a year and a half, weeping after she was separated from one of the volunteers.
"She had really bonded with the volunteer, and it was heartbreaking you couldn't talk to her in her language. But you could still relate to these kids with hugs and smiles."
Two translators were brought in, and the children seemed relieved to hear French being spoken, he added.
Catholic Charities also set up a "comfort room" on the third floor of the John G. Rangos Sr. Research Center adjacent to the hospital, where children can sleep, play and be comfortable while awaiting placement with their adoptive or foster families, she said. The Red Cross stocked it with bedding and "we purchased additional toys to make it as homey as possible," Kushma said.
In the comfort center, the children ate chicken fingers and pizza. The younger ones were fed baby food and bananas, and played with their new teddy bears.
Allegheny County Children Youth and Families will begin to work to process the children, many of whom have clearance for adoption. A family court judge will set up across the hall from the comfort room to handle placement of the children.
Rendell, speaking to reporters at the state Capitol just after returning from Pittsburgh, described how the trip came together. He said UPMC contacted him late Friday night because it was having trouble getting approval to land a plane in Haiti to airlift the orphans out.
He then heard the Haitian ambassador on CNN Saturday afternoon, and called him in Washington. The ambassador said it was important to have the governor of Pennsylvania on the relief plane in case any diplomatic complications arose.
UPMC helped arranged the Republic Airways plane, which left Pittsburgh at noon Monday and landed in Port-au-Prince about 6 p.m. Rendell said the fact that he was aboard did speed up the plane's ability to land on the one runway at the busy airport.
It took just over six hours to load the orphans on the plane, and shortly after midnight Tuesday, it left Haiti.
"You should have seen the smiles on the kids' faces. That made it all worthwhile," Rendell said. "There were 53 incredible kids on that plane. They were upbeat even though the plane was noisy and they'd never been on a plane before."
He said the children probably had a weather-related shock because "the average temperature in Haiti is 65 degrees and it was 31 and snowy when we landed in Pittsburgh."
Those who went on the mission have not disclosed who funded it. Republic Airways, based in Indianapolis, provided the aircraft used in the rescue mission to Haiti.