Friends and family of two California journalists were relieved and excited Tuesday after the pair were pardoned by North Korea and released to former President Bill Clinton.

But they weren't ready to start the celebration until Laura Ling and Euna Lee landed in the United States.

"I'm just completely excited for the family and looking forward to seeing them flying home with Bill Clinton," said Marcus Marquez, who went to high school with Ling in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb.

He added their families were not going to be fully relieved until "they're in their arms."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il ordered the journalists released after meeting with Clinton, who arrived in North Korea earlier in the day on an unannounced visit. Clinton left the country with both journalists aboard his plane, his spokesman Matt McKenna said. All three were en route to Los Angeles, where the journalists were expected to be reunited with their families.

In June, the nation's top court sentenced Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, to 12 years of hard labor for sneaking into the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."

The journalists were working for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture when North Korean guards seized them in March near the country's border with China.

The journalists' detention came at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and North Korea over that country's nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council also has imposed sanctions against North Korea for a May nuclear test.

The families of the two women, who had sent letters pleading for the women's release, issued a joint statement thanking President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their work.

"We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home," according to the statement posted on a Web site dedicated to freeing the two journalists.

Ling's father, Doug, told reporters outside his home in Carmichael that his daughter's release was one of the best days of his life.

"It's one of the few times something positive has happened to me, besides having the two girls," Doug Ling said, referring to Ling and her sister, Lisa, a correspondent for CNN, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "National Geographic Explorer."

Doug Ling said he was heading to Southern California to meet his daughter, who he said was scheduled to fly into the Burbank airport, just north of Los Angeles, early Wednesday.

"I'm going to go down there and see my little girl," Doug Ling said.

Brandon Yip, who is married to Ling's cousin, said the first thing he'll tell Ling when she returns is, "Don't ever do that again."

Yip, who is the worship pastor at Bayside Covenant Church in California, said he prayed throughout the ordeal and felt confident the women would return home. He said he was grateful someone of Clinton's stature was able to negotiate their release.

"I think it needed to be somebody like that," Yip told The Associated Press at his office. "I'm grateful that they finally got to that point where they could at least come together and talk."

Gore and Current Media co-founder Joel Hyatt thanked the Obama administration and Clinton for "his willingness to undertake this mission."

"All of us at Current are overjoyed at Laura and Euna's safe return," the men said in a statement released by Current Media. "Our hearts go out to them and to their families for persevering through this horrible experience."

Marquez said the families were heartened by vigils held on the journalists' behalf from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. He and Yip said a celebration would be held in Sacramento after they return home.

A neighbor of Laura Ling's father in Carmichael said she was ecstatic when she heard the news on the radio.

"It's been a long wait for the family. It's good news today," said Tomi Kelley, 48, who lives a few houses away.

Curtains were drawn at Ling's father's house and there was no answer at the door. Several television trucks were parked on the street.

The news drew applause from California officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Schwarzenegger said he and his wife, Maria Shriver, were joining all Californians in celebrating the release of Ling and Lee. He wished them a safe return home.

"This has been an extremely difficult time for all involved, and I am grateful that this humanitarian gesture will allow them to begin a new chapter of their lives," Feinstein said in a statement.