Inside the Haiti rescue mission

Through twists and turns, help from highest levels of government spelled success


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This story was written by staff writer Jon Schmitz, based on his reporting and that of Mackenzie Carpenter and Dennis B. Roddy.

Amid the din of aircraft engines in the darkness at Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, Jason Altmire watched anxiously as Denis McDonough, a top aide to President Barack Obama, poked away at his BlackBerry.

"All at once he gets this real broad smile on his face," Mr. Altmire said.

Mr. McDonough thrust the device at an Air Force officer standing on the grass alongside the runway of the shattered airport.

"Read this," he said.

On the screen was word that after more than five wrenching hours, the governments of the United States and Haiti had cleared 54 Haitian orphans to leave the earthquake-ravaged country for Pittsburgh, on a rescue mission headed by Mr. Altmire, the congressman from McCandless, and Gov. Ed Rendell.

Over the span of a few days, desperation and panic, political gamesmanship and a family's skillful enlistment of the highest echelons of government had combined to produce a happy ending.

But the euphoria of the moment was quickly drowned by more tension and heartache when a frenzied head count came up one child short, just as their C-17 Air Force cargo plane was preparing to take off.

It was one in a series of snags and setbacks that bedeviled the mission from its outset. Jamie and Ali McMutrie, the sisters from Ben Avon who were the orphans' caregivers, bolted from the aircraft in tears.

Air Force officers, desperate to get the plane off the airport's lone runway so others could land, were furious.

"We have to go. We have to shut the doors," Mr. Altmire recalled them saying.

When the doors finally closed late Monday, Ali McMutrie and 53 children from their BRESMA orphanage were aboard. Jamie stayed behind to find 2-year-old Emma, the missing child.

For the next three hours, on what should have been a triumphant flight to Florida, "there was a pall in the air," Mr. Altmire said. The C-17 was on the runway in Orlando, still slowing down, when Jamie's husband, Doug Heckman, phoned her from the plane and learned that she and Emma were OK.

Calling their congressman

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, the morning after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 and left much of Haiti in ruins, Jim Ferruchie, a staffer in Mr. Altmire's Aliquippa office, received a call from Diane McMutrie.

She said she had two daughters in Haiti and wanted to get them out, Mr. Altmire said.

"American citizens can leave anytime," the congressman noted. But as Mr. Altmire and his staff made inquiries, they learned two things: the sisters were adamant that the children from their orphanage had to come along, and "you can't just fly a plane into Haiti, pick up some kids and bring them home."

Mr. Altmire called Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama's chief of staff, who promised to look into the situation. It was the first of countless calls traded by the highest sentinels of government over the next few days. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle and their staffs also got involved.

Dueling rescue efforts

As lawmakers conferred and the McMutrie family scrambled for help, a competing rescue effort developed, breaking not only along party lines but foreshadowing a potential congressional race.

Mary Beth Buchanan, the former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, began a bid to extract the sisters and orphans.

Ms. Buchanan, who has mulled a challenge to incumbent Democrat Mr. Altmire, spent four days getting permission to bring out the children, and gathering medical supplies, physicians to escort the children and -- the final link that did not fall in place -- an airplane cleared to land in Haiti.

At about the same time, a parallel effort was being organized by Leslie Merrill McCombs, senior consultant for UPMC government relations and a close associate of Mr. Rendell.

Ms. Buchanan said Ms. McCombs called her, grilled her for information, obtained a list of the children and ended up shipping medical supplies gathered as part of the Buchanan effort on the plane that carried Mr. Rendell and Mr. Altmire.

"I think there were some people who viewed this as 'The Amazing Race' or something," she said.

Ms. Buchanan lost the race.

While she was waiting for clearance to get a plane to Haiti, Ms. McCombs' group secured an aircraft, held a clandestine Sunday night meeting -- to which Ms. Buchanan wasn't invited -- and prepared to leave the following day.

The meeting occurred at the China Palace Restaurant on Route 19 in McCandless. Ms. McCombs, who had summoned a range of people, including Mr. Altmire, officials from UPMC, Allegheny General Hospital, Allegheny County human services officials and Catholic Charities, presided.

Mr. Altmire, asked if the involvement of a possible political rival influenced his efforts, said Ms. Buchanan "never reached out to us, never contacted any of the [legislators] involved. She never called me, her congressman. She was totally uninvolved in the whole thing."

Plan A: no politicians

Mr. Altmire at first believed the solution was for the sisters to leave with those children who were in the process of being adopted by Americans -- about 40 children.

"It become clear over the next couple days that Jamie and Ali were not going to leave until all the kids were accounted for," he said.

At the family's urging, Mr. Altmire phoned Jamie McMutrie on Saturday, Jan. 16. She told him supplies were low and she was starting to worry about the possibility of looting.

"An orphanage run by two young women is a pretty inviting target," Mr. Altmire said. "They were starting to feel unsafe. And kids were getting sick."

A plan was developed to have the children taken to the airport in a United Nations vehicle with a military escort and placed aboard a transport plane after it had unloaded supplies. No politicians would be on the trip.

Late that night, Mr. Altmire told Mr. Heckman "we have every reason for optimism that this is going to work out."

The next day, he wasn't so sure. All of the children hadn't received clearance to leave, and plans for the military escort had fallen through.

"I thought, well, it's not going to be so simple," Mr. Altmire said.

Rendell lends his clout

Mr. Rendell's involvement began on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 14 when Ms. McCombs called to inform him about the children's plight. He agreed to do whatever he could, and Ms. McCombs started working the phones.

Dr. Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Center for Regenerative Medicine at University of Pittsburgh, had sent her an e-mail earlier that morning. He was in Tampa, Fla., chairing a meeting of the Armed Forces Institute for Regenerative Medicine when the earthquake struck.

One of his associates had sent him a copy of the sisters' "SOS" e-mail to relatives and friends, which he forwarded to Ms. McCombs.

A prominent researcher in the field of tissue regeneration for wounded soldiers, Dr. Russell had extensive contacts in the upper ranks of the military. They told him that, foremost, any rescue plan must involve an influential name that would open doors.

"The do-gooders try and do things, and all of them fail, these military people told me," he said. "If something like this works, it's because there is a direct involvement of a really blunt senior politician."

On Saturday, Ms. McCombs was watching CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewing Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States -- and a light bulb went on.

"Use your CNN contacts to get the ambassador's number," she urged the governor. He did.

Once the ambassador returned his call Saturday night, "he started the ball rolling for us," Mr. Rendell said. "He opened up the Haitian government for our mission. He understood about the orphanage, everything."

The governor also spoke with Homeland Security officials, using his contacts with Secretary Janet Napolitano and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, he said "essentially paved the way for us to get into Haiti."

Mr. Rendell said he had no intention of going along, but on Sunday, he received another call from the Haitian ambassador.

"He told me, 'You have to go. So many things can go wrong, sometimes while you're in the air, and you will need the weight of the governor to get things done.' "

Mr. Rendell had six appearances scheduled in Philadelphia for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but decided to cancel them. "I'd never missed a Martin Luther King event, but I realized it was important to be on that plane."

He would also bring his wife, Marjorie Rendell, a judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, "for two reasons -- one, I thought it would be a great experience for her, and two, it never hurts to have a federal judge around."

On Sunday afternoon, at 12:34, Ms. McCombs got an e-mail from Don Osmundson, vice president of operations for Indianapolis-based Republic Airways, confirming that a plane was available.

That night, in Philadelphia, the governor made a trip to a discount toy store, Five Below, and bought $457 worth of games, toys and stuffed animals -- "61 Beanie Babies, at four bucks each," he said.

Snags, snafus galore

Those going on the mission were warned that plans could change and that failure was a real possibility.

"If we go, we needed to realize that everything that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time," Dr. Russell said.

The first change: the takeoff time. Originally set for 6 a.m. Monday, it was moved to 11 a.m. because a landing slot wasn't available in Haiti.

Even before takeoff, snags developed.

Donald Moore, the U.S. consul general in charge at the embassy in Port-au-Prince, called to inform them that the embassy would not permit any of the children to leave -- contrary to what they had been told earlier by Mr. Rendell's contacts.

"My job is to get Americans out of Haiti, not Haitians out of Haiti," Mr. Moore told them.

After a flurry of phone calls that finally resulted in a go-ahead from higher-ups in the Department of Homeland Security, the donated Embraer 170 commuter jet departed shortly before noon with 31 passengers and a couple tons of medical supplies.

After refueling in Miami, the jet continued to Port-au-Prince.

Touchdown in Haiti

As the jet approached the island, the captain reported that they were not allowed to land.

Was it all right, a flight attendant asked, if they informed the airport that the governor was on board? Mr. Rendell agreed, and a few minutes later, they were cleared.

"It felt eerie," Mr. Rendell said. "I remembered the magic words of Ambassador Josephs, saying you'd better be on that plane because it may be useful."

The airport has a single 10,000-foot runway that once handled three flights a day. Now the U.S. Air Force was trying to cram in hundreds of landings and departures. The control tower and terminal had been wrecked by the earthquake, and operations were centered on a grassy strip next to the runway. The air traffic controller sat at a card table.

At 6:25 p.m., the plane landed. Bonfires provided light at the airport, which was mobbed with people: U.S. military, Haitians, people trying to get in, people trying to get out. It was hot, humid, and the smell of jet exhaust hung thickly in the air. The roar of engines made it almost impossible to talk.

"It was unbelievable, surreal," Mr. Rendell said.

The plane from Pittsburgh was allotted one hour on the ground.

Its arrival did not go unnoticed by the media in Haiti, some of whom wondered why a nonmilitary mission was allowed in at the expense of the overall relief effort.

"Anderson Cooper bitched about me on the air [on CNN], for no good reason," Mr. Rendell said. "We were carrying as many medical supplies as the Doctors Without Borders plane was carrying -- and we also brought home 53 orphans."

A frantic message

Once there, they received a frantic text from Jamie McMutrie. The two sisters, with 54 children loaded into three vans and a bus, had been blocked from going into the U.S. embassy and were ready to head back to the orphanage, or what remained of it.

Everyone whipped out cell phones. Mr. Rendell got word to Valerie Jarrett, a top aide to Mr. Obama, and also spoke with Huma Abedin, a close aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He'd become friendly with Ms. Abedin during the 2008 presidential primary in Pennsylvania.

The news from the State Department was that all 47 of the children with adoption papers would be processed by the embassy. The bad news? The seven others without papers wouldn't be allowed to go.

"[Jamie McMutrie] was going crazy, her husband, Doug [Heckman] was getting emotional," the governor said. Ms. McMutrie said she had been lied to, "and to some extent, she was right," he added.

The sisters' ultimatum: No go without all 54.

By this time, "Governor Rendell had become General Rendell," said Dr. Russell.

"I was yelling, 'This is the U.S.! It's what we do best! We're a safe haven for people!' " Mr. Rendell said. "Huma was telling me that it would be illegal for us to take any children without adoption plans and that if we went ahead we would be subject to arrest."

Meanwhile, Mr. Altmire had called his chief of staff, Sharon Werner, who told him two staffers from the White House's National Security Council were supposed to meet him at the airport "and walk you through it." At first, they couldn't be located.

"We had an hour. It seemed like forever," Mr. Altmire said.

He found Mr. McDonough, NSC chief of staff and a close adviser to Mr. Obama who had been sent to Haiti to be the president's point man for disaster relief.

Mr. Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, had instructed Mr. McDonough to make the Pittsburgh mission a top priority, the congressman said.

While Mr. McDonough was being tracked down, Jamie McMutrie texted back with more bad news: now the embassy would process only 28 children.

That's it, she declared. We're going back to the orphanage. Ms. McCombs broke down in tears pleading with them not to leave the embassy.

With the hour melting away, Mr. McDonough hustled off to squeeze an additional 90 minutes out of the Air Force. It would not be enough.

Perilous trip to embassy

It was now clear that the group at the airport would have to go after the sisters and the children, but how to get to the embassy? It was dangerous driving through Port-au-Prince without a military escort.

Ms. McCombs flagged down a United Nations Jeep, but by the time the group had figured out who was to go and who was to stay, the driver of the Jeep had gone.

Then, Lt. Col. Randon Draper arrived from the embassy, a polite Southerner who would provide a steadying presence in the chaotic hours ahead.

Their best chance, Mr. Rendell said, was to have Col. Draper drive Judge Rendell, Ms. McCombs, Dr. Russell, Dr. Tom Doyle, and several other medical and security personnel to the embassy.

Judge Rendell and Ms. McCombs would try to calm and persuade the sisters to allow the 47 documented children to leave for the airport. Their argument would be that everyone would be arrested if they tried to bring the other children, too.

But how to find a car?

"When I was in the Army, you commandeered a car. Just go get the car," the governor told Ms. McCombs impatiently. She flagged down a sport utility vehicle.

After a hair-raising 10-minute drive at top speed through the darkness, the group arrived at the embassy around 9 p.m. They figured, Dr. Russell said, that they would have to leave the embassy by 9:40 to make it back to the plane and board the children.

'High-stakes game'

Three vans and a bus full of children were parked out front. The sisters and Mr. Heckman were distraught.

"At this point the girls were not very complimentary," Dr. Russell said. "We told them we were there to try and help, but they didn't believe a word of it. They knew we were trying to manipulate them."

Jamie McMutrie refused to budge. The plane is going to leave, Dr. Russell told her. "I said, 'Look at the sky. See those planes circling? Haiti's rescue mission can't go on until our plane is gone.' "

It was 9:35. He asked Col. Draper to go get the others in the embassy.

We're done, Dr. Russell told Jamie. We have to leave.

"Those girls were playing a high-stakes game of poker, and they played their hands fabulously," he said.

Dr. Russell made one last try. "I asked her, 'Why don't you come with us and the 47 children back to the U.S.? We'll find a physician who can stay with Ali, and we'll make sure to get you back to Haiti.' "

Jamie seemed to bend.

"I can come back to Haiti?" she asked, cautiously.

Wielding a satellite phone, Dr. Russell called a highly placed military friend, who pledged to try to arrange transport back to Haiti for Jamie. She agreed to leave.

When Mr. Heckman, Jamie's husband, realized she had decided to go to the airport with the children, he lashed out angrily. "Things could have turned physical if it had not become clear that while we were at the embassy Governor Rendell had succeeded in working a miracle," Dr. Russell said.

Dr. Russell and Jamie's agreement evaporated when Ali decided she would take a risk and go too, with the remaining children.

Shortly before 10, they pulled up to the airport, with 54 children. Their plane was gone.

"My heart about sank through the floor," said Dr. Russell.

Second chance

What they didn't realize was that the Air Force had raised the possibility that the group could hitch a ride to Florida later on one of its cargo planes after it had dropped off supplies.

"I kept trying to get the [military] to extend the time. But then this major comes up to me, a really great guy, and he apologizes and says, 'I'm very sorry, but your plane has to leave, or otherwise we are going to have an international incident,' " Mr. Rendell said.

"It's very disconcerting to be standing on the ground in Haiti with everything seeming to fall apart and watching your plane take off," Mr. Altmire said.

An Air Force C-17 arrived -- an enormous plane, with an interior nearly the size of a football field. It, too, was on a firm deadline to depart, and as the minutes ticked away, five or six children still weren't cleared by the embassy, Mr. Altmire said.

He said Mr. McDonough wanted to put all the children on the plane but the Air Force, going "by the book," wouldn't allow it. Then came the message that all had finally been processed. The rescue group had been on the ground for nearly five hours.

"Load 'em all up," an Air Force officer said.

But as the plane's door closed, suddenly Mr. Rendell said he heard the sisters shrieking. They had done one last head count, and a child was missing.

"They were trying to open the door to the plane, crying, 'We don't have Emma!' "

Finally, the women were persuaded to split up. Jamie would stay behind and search for Emma, while Ali would go with the other children.

The plane took off at 11:24 p.m., with Ali still anguished but the children happy and upbeat. Mr. Rendell walked around passing out sodas, coloring books and lollipops, and the toys he and his wife had bought.

While they were in flight, Jamie drove back to the embassy with Lt. Col. Draper. They found Emma asleep in the embassy, where she had been overlooked in the rush. Jamie and Emma flew back to Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Late last week, the mission would draw criticism from an official of the French Doctors Without Borders agency, who in an interview with the New York Times called the decision to allow the rescue plane in and out of Haiti "shocking and crazy."

"It's sort of amazing when you look at it. The whole thing could have failed so easily," Mr. Rendell said, dismissing any criticism of the mission. "There were times when I thought we were going home with nothing. It was an effing miracle."


Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. Dennis B. Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965. First Published January 24, 2010 5:00 AM


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