LINTHICUM, Md. – Americans caught in the crossfire of the conflict between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel began arriving back in the United States early Thursday as the first plane from a massive evacuation effort landed at an airport outside Washington.
Authorities said 80 percent of the American evacuees from Lebanon arriving in Baltimore Thursday morning would be heading on to other destinations around the country; the rest would be staying locally.
Some were met by family members at the airport, and no one has yet requested housing assistance.
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Sami Lahan said passengers didn't rest easy until they were on the plane in Cyprus and headed home. They had been evacuated from Lebanon to the island after Israel began airstrikes on nearby Hezbollah targets over a week ago.
"It was just so fearful to be outside," Lahan said, "because being outside and the planes going around, you never knew what is going to happen. You never knew when they are going to strike."
Amal Kazzaz, a Richmond, Va., resident who had been visiting relatives in Lebanon, said of that country: "It's the grave of the Middle East, that's what I call it now."
The Omni Air International flight was the first of several carrying evacuees from Lebanon expected Thursday at Baltimore-Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport. About 150 passengers arrived at 6:30 a.m. EDT, said BWI spokeswoman Tracy Newman. They were sent through customs and then had assistance sorting out the rest of their journeys, from make travel arrangements to contact relatives.
Although there were reports of many people frustrated with the speed and efficacy of the U.S. evacuation process, many others were satisfied with the American reaction to the crisis.
"It feels wonderful to be back in the states. We just want to thank so much the State Department and people who helped the government — the Marines — to get us out," said Chris Weir from Kansas City, Mo., who was in Lebanon on a two-week evangelical mission.
His wife, Cherith, added that those directing the evacuation effort "were excellent."
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. The Department of Homeland Security will help expedite their repatriation, a spokesman said late Wednesday.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut on Thursday posted a message on its Web site entitled, "Every American Who Wants to Depart Will Be Helped: Helping Americans Depart Safely is our First Priority," which said helping those who want to get out is the U.S. government's "first priority."
It also listed a variety of identification items and other must-haves that evacuees should bring with them.
The posting said the embassy, with help from the State and Defense departments, will help more than 2,300 Americans depart Lebanon on Thursday alone. It dissuaded Americans, however, from coming to the embassy unless they have been instructed to do so, since "the presence of crowds is causing additional delays and hinders the progress of the departures."
"The U.S. government is using all resources possible to facilitate the speedy and safe departure of American citizens currently in Lebanon using every means available," the posting said.
"As very large numbers of people are likely to gather at the departure processing center, Americans should be prepared for an extended wait and should bring supplies of food and water."
Medical care was available at BWI for the evacuees, but Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that he did not know of any evacuees who would need it.
Family members waited anxiously at the airport for their loved ones 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."
Others worried about the loved ones who stayed behind. Martha Khayat left her husband at their Beirut home while she and their children headed to New York, where her sister lives. Her daughter Amani, 11, said they could hearing the explosions and see the smoke and fire around them.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich said he has directed the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Human Resources and other state agencies to help the evacuees.
He said some could be children traveling alone. Others include students, government employees and people on vacation. They may need help with food, lodging and connecting with loved ones, he said. The health department planned to have licensed social workers on hand for those who might need counseling, especially any children traveling along.
Ehrlich told FOX News on Thursday morning that Maryland was happy to help do its duty in aiding Americans coming home.
"It's not a headache, it's our duty, it's our obligation and we're obviously very happy to help," Ehrlich said. "We are what anybody needs and, obviously, there are going to be a variety of needs here."
Ehrlich said federal government officials called him on Monday to designate Maryland as the entry point for American evacuees, since the Old Line State has plans in place for such large incoming groups. BWI has served as the gateway for many soldiers coming back from Iraq, among other groups.
"We have a plan in place for this type of situation. We had a plan in place from the very moment the federal government contacted us," Ehrlich explained.
As for who's picking up the tab for the services being offered, Ehrlich said he's not worried about it.
"Quite frankly, I don't care," he said. "We're going to do what we need to do. We'll work it [out] with the feds later. If we have to eat some of this, it doesn't matter ... it is our great pleasure and our duty."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.