Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Fifty-three orphans from earthquake-ravaged Haiti arrived at Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital Tuesday, many wrapped in blankets and carried by their 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. The plight of the children drew wide coverage by TV news reporters for days.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell 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 Rendell and Ali McMutrie addressed the media throng at the airport.
"It's awesome. I think I'm dreaming," Ali McMutrie said.
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," Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.
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," Altmire said.
"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."
For a week after the quake, she said, she and her sister with their orphans lived in a driveway with hundreds of other people, mostly children.
As the journey to their new lives began, the children were joyous from the ride from the U.S. 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."
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 Carrasco, who had had six hours of sleep scattered through the previous 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.
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