Haitian orphans settle in; rescue team discusses trip

The 53 orphans from earthquake-ravaged Haiti have arrived at Children's Hospital.

The children traveled by Port Authority bus from the airport to the Lawrenceville facility. There the blanket-wrapped children -- many of them infants and toddlers -- were carried or accompanied into the hospital by 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. Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Bradford Woods, 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 Gov. Rendell, Mr. Altmire and Ali McMutrie addressed the media throng at the airport.

"It's awesome. I think I'm dreaming," Ali McMutrie said.

Gov. 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," Mr. Altmire said.

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," Mr. Altmire said.

As the congressman and the governor negotiated by phone, medical personnel on the rescue team went to the U.S. Embassy about three miles away to confer with the McMutries, who were with the children.

"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."

The hopelessness of the situation struck the McMutries when the quake hit last week and the two women were not at home. They were relieved to find all of the children had gotten out of the dwelling and were safe, Ali McMutrie said.

For a week, she said, she and her sister with their orphans lived in a driveway with hundreds of other people, mostly children.

There was little or no contact from home. The biggest surprise for the Ben Avon women came at the embassy where their parents found them.

The children were joyous from the ride from the 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."

Jamie McMutrie's husband, Doug Heckman, said he is trying to track down Jamie, who missed the flight home. She was at the U.S. embassy last night, he said, but he isn't sure where she is right now or when she might arrive in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Heckman said the rescue trip to Haiti was well-organized and American military personnel on the ground at the airport were extremely helpful. At no point did he or the other members who made the trip feel threatened or in danger.

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 Dr. Carrasco, who had had six hours of sleep scattered through the prior 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 tarmack, where the children were eventually brought to them.

The medical team had prepared for a worst-case-scenario of seriously ill children. But, though Dr. Carrasco didn't know what had happend 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 this morning 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," Dr. 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.

The children seemed happy and were well-behaved on the bus trip, which took them into the city over the West End Bridge, said Tom Kneier, deputy executive director of Catholic Charities. When they became excited at their view of the city, Mr. Kneier asked a translator what they were saying.

"They were just amazed by the size of the buildings," he said.

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 today. 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 seemed relieved to hear French being spoken, he added.

Catholic Charities has provided clothing and supplies for the children as well as Creole translators to assist the doctors and nurses at Children's Hospital in assessing and treating the children, said Ms. Kushma.

Many area churches, as well as Giant Eagle and Wal-Mart, donated clothing, food, infant formula, diapers, ointment, toys and other supplies.

Catholic Charites also set up a "comfort room" on the third floor of the John G. Rangos Sr. Research Center adjacent to the hospital. at Children's 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," Ms. Kushma said.

The children are now in the comfort center eating chicken fingers and pizza. The younger children are eating baby food, bananas and playing with 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.

Marc Cherna, head of CYF, said he expects many of the children to be adopted today. Most have the paperwork completed and the adoptive parents have traveled to Pittsburgh. Mr. Cherna said as many as three quarters of the children may be adopted today. The others will be placed in temporary shelter here until their paperwork is completed.

Gov. Ed Rendell, speaking to reporters at the state Capitol this afternoon, 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 the ability 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 Monday about 6 p.m. He said the fact that he was aboard did speed up the plane's ability to land on the one runway at the busy airplort.

It took just over six hours to load the orphans on the plane, and shortly after midnight today, it left Haiti with 53 orphans aboard, bound for Pittsburgh. Of those, 47 had adoptive parents, mostly Americans but some from Canada and some from Spain. The plane landed in Pittsburgh just after 9 a.m. today.

In the confusion, one little girl, named Emma, was mistakenly left on the bus that had taken the orphans from the orphanage to the Port au Prince airport, but she was to be flown to Pittsburgh on a later plane.

"You should have seen the smiles on the kids' faces. That made it all worthwhile,'' Mr. 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 yesterday's rescue mission to Haiti.

"We did donate the use of the aircraft, fuel and crew to support the rescue operation," spokesman Carlo Bertolini said.

He said airline employees had been eager to find ways to help earthquake victims. Company officials last week began exploring the possibility of putting a relief flight together. The problem was in finding a time slot to land in Port-au-Prince, where the airport has been overrun with traffic, he said.

One of Republic's pilots who was familiar with doctors at UPMC alerted the company about the possibility of a rescue mission for the BRESMA orphans and discussions began in earnest over the weekend, he said.

"It was a joining of forces that worked out for everyone," Mr. Bertolini said.

The airline's Embraer 170 jet was used to transport the rescue team from Pittsburgh to Haiti yesterday and the rescuers and orphans from Sanford, Fla., to Pittsburgh this morning. The flight left Florida at 7:34 a.m. and arrived at 9:22 a.m. at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The plane dropped off 3,000 pounds of medical/surgical supplies in Haiti, donated by Brother's Brother Foundation in Pittsburgh.

"We often talk of providing 'the best care in the air,' and today we were honored by the opportunity to provide truly vital service," said Wayne Heller, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Republic Airways. "We are proud to partner with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the U.S. government in transporting these children to safety, and I appreciate the hard work our flight crews, customer service and other support personnel did on short notice to help us fly these children to an environment where they can receive the care they so urgently need."

Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com . David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com . Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com . Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com . Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com . Rachael Conway can be reached at rconway@post-gazette.com. First Published January 19, 2010 12:00 PM


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