The 39 ex-hostages of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 almost became normal people again Monday. Almost, but not quite. The final decompression after their 17 days of captivity involved (on a voluntary basis) medical examinations, debriefing by a United States security team -- and more press interviews.
Before this last denouement to their 21/2-week ordeal in Beirut, a number were able to be reunited with their families, as TWA and the ubiquitous television networks flew relatives over to Frankfurt, West Germany, for the dawn arrival of the US military transport plane that brought the former hostages from Damascus to Europe on their way back to the US.
The first welcome to the 39 came from Vice-President George Bush, who boarded the camouflage-painted C-141 to greet them. He and his wife then headed a reception line on the tarmac that included four US senators, the nine relatives who had made it to Frankfurt before the ex-hostages, and various West German officials. Some 300 American servicemen and dependents from the American Lindsey Air Station also cheered on the smiling freed hostages by applauding, waving American flags, and sporting home-made signs bearing such sentiments as ``Free at last,'' ``Home sweet home,'' and ``To endure is not to tolerate. Our Americans -- free once more.''
After a brief speech by Mr. Bush -- ``Our people are back. . . . You displayed character. . . . Your country is proud of you. . . . Welcome home. God bless America'' -- the former hostages were whisked off to the same US Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden that the American hostages from Iran were taken to on their release four years ago. There they got a hearty American breakfast, a chance to phone home, the initial medical confirmation that they are in good health -- and finally, a few hours of sleep.
The excitement of their return to control over their own lives initially kept most of them awake, however. ``They're running on a lot of adrenalin,'' said Col. Charles K. Maffet, commander of the Air Force hospital. ``After showers and breakfast they wanted to get right on with the [medical] evaluations.''
``Their handshakes were good and firm when they got off the buses'' taking them from Frankfurt airport to the hospital, reported Colonel Maffet. ``Their spirits were very high. They were obviously very happy to be here in Wiesbaden.'' Several times he used the word ``upbeat'' to describe their mood, and he observed that there was a lot of camaraderie in the group.
The family members who were here when the men arrived were invited into the hospital immediately to have breakfast with the former hostages, Maffet stated. Apart from the TV networks which had purchased exclusive stories from the families of various ex-hostages, the horde of reporters here were confined for many hours to second-hand gleanings from the likes of Colonel Maffet. Journalists were barred from approaching the well-wishers on the tarmac before the C-141 arrived, and print journalists (though not camera crews) were barred from the hospital grounds. Moreover, US officials steadfastly declined to comment on anything except the former hostages' medical reception.
At the hospital, 46 American flags flew outside the building, 39 for the returned TWA passengers and crew, seven for the American hostages still held in Lebanon from earlier kidnappings. In his comments Bush referred somberly to the need to free these people as well.