Ben Avon sisters awaiting help for imperiled orphans in Haiti


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Congressmen, a former federal prosecutor and scores of good Samaritans are rushing to help two Ben Avon sisters who are trapped in Haiti with a group of orphans they refuse to leave behind.

Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, said he and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey Jr. were working with the White House to bring home Jamie McMutrie, her sister Alison and the children they care for at the BRESMA orphanage "as quickly as possible."

BRESMA is an acronym for Brebis de Saint-Michel de L'Attalaye.

"We have been informed by the Department of State that they are putting together a task force to see what can be done for the children who have pending adoptions with American parents," Mr. Casey said. "I will continue to work with the women and their families and to do everything in my power to help respond to this horrific tragedy."

On a second front, former U.S. attorney Mary Beth Buchanan is working to secure a medical team, supplies and a plane to get the sisters and the children out of devastated Port-au-Prince.

"I woke up and the first thing I read was the stories of Jamie and Alison and the children of BRESMA," Ms. Buchanan said. "Then I thought about all the different ways I might be able to help."

Since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake all but destroyed the Haitian capital and left untold thousands dead, the sisters have been living in the orphanage's yard without food or water with dozens of children whose only home is falling down around them.

"I know my wife, and she was not going to leave those kids just so she could be safe," said Jamie McMutrie's husband, Doug Heckman.

Ms. McMutrie managed to send a message to her husband Wednesday using a stranger's Blackberry.

"We truly can't keep babies alive ... water contaminated. This is our only hope," wrote the 30-year-old Avonworth High School graduate. "Only private planes allowed. We know it's crazy, but can everyone come together and find a person to help us, like Obama?"

Mr. Heckman said his wife is tough and handles crises well. The tone of that message was chilling.

"Nothing shakes her. Nothing gets to her," he said. "To read those messages ... it was scary."

Now, the only thing Mr. Heckman and family and friends want to do is bring Jamie and Alison, 21, home along with the children who have parents waiting for them in the U.S. and abroad.

Dozens of others at the orphanage, however, may be left behind.

Here at home, though, efforts to arrange rescue mission for the sisters and the children are in full swing.

Ms. Buchanan sought help from contacts she made during her years as a prosecutor.

Among the people she called was Dr. Mary Carrasco, director of A Child's Place at Mercy, a program in the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System that provides care for children who are abused, neglected or in foster care.

Dr. Carrasco, a pediatrician and a personal friend of Ms. Buchanan, said she quickly agreed to help in any way she could, even going to Haiti, if necessary. The offer was immediately accepted, she said.

"What I'm going to be worried about is what is happening with these kids in the next few days," Dr. Carrasco said. "If they don't have access to clean water or food, they may have serious health problems. If the water is contaminated, they still have to drink it, and if they can only drink contaminated water, then they may get diarrhea and other illness."

Dr. Carrasco said she's hopeful a trip can be arranged in next few days because of the worsening conditions in Haiti.

She said she is amazed with the way the region is trying to mobilize help for the two Ben Avon women.

"I'm impressed with these sisters," she said. "Everyone wants to help."

Ms. Buchanan said an immigration attorney from Pittsburgh, the U.S. adoption agency that is handling BRESMA adoptions and federal immigration officials are working to get the children into the country on a "humanitarian parole" waiver. It would allow them to stay in the U.S. until the legal system can pick up their cases again, she added.

Because of problems at the Port-au-Prince airport, Ms. Buchanan said she is working to move the sisters and children to a nearby island where flights could land.

Sam McMutrie and his wife, Diane, are not only waiting for word on their daughters, but they are also one of dozens of families waiting for word on a BRESMA child.

The elder McMutries were well into the process of adopting a 3-year-old boy from BRESMA when the earthquake hit.

"Right now, we're worried parents," he said. "[Our daughters] have been in a dangerous place, and now its even more dangerous."

In Miami yesterday, officials with Catholic Charities and other South Florida immigrant rights organizations said they are planning to airlift possibly thousands of Haitian children orphaned by the earthquake.

The effort, officials said, would be similar to Operation Pedro Pan in the 1960s, a clandestine operation to spirit children out of Fidel Castro's new Cuba as communist indoctrination was spreading into Catholic and private schools.

"We will use the model we used 40 years ago with Pedro Pan to bring these orphans to the United States to give them a lifeline, a bright and hopeful future," Catholic Charities Legal Services executive director Randolph McGrorty said yesterday.


The Miami Herald contributed to this report. Rachael Conway can be reached at rconway@post-gazette.com or 724-772-4799. First Published January 15, 2010 5:00 AM


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