The McVicar family heard the first boom while they stood in the check-in queue last week at Beirut's airport, hoping to board a plane home to the United States.
"And then a man behind us in line with a cellphone said, 'Have any of you been in an airport under a missile attack before?' says David McVicar. " 'You are now.' "
Mr. McVicar sat with his wife and two children Wednesday in the lounge of the Orient Queen cruise ship. Mid-afternoon the Greek vessel set sail carrying about 1,000 American nationals, including the McVicars, who have been trapped in Lebanon by the conflict that escalated between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas this week. It was the first large-scale evacuation.
About 8,000 of the 25,000 US citizens in Lebanon are expected to want to leave. Vice Adm. Patrick M. Walsh said Tuesday that nine Navy ships were en route to the area, but was vague about details, saying security was a concern.
Denmark evacuated more than 4,000 citizens Wednesday; Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, and India were evacuating citizens or preparing to. France has already evacuated about 1,600 citizens by ship and by plane and in an ongoing effort.
Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, coordinator for the US evacuation, estimated that more than 6,000 Americans would have been evacuated by the weekend. "We expect this to go on for the next week until every American who has asked us for help to leave, gets to leave," said US Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, who watched from the dock as the ship left.
Many Americans have expressed frustration with what they see as the slow pace of US efforts to help them flee Israeli bombardment that has so far killed at least 292 people, most of them civilians.
Ferne McNabb-Bistany, a Louisiana native who survived hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said she found herself caught in the conflict with little assistance.
"You couldn't get through to the American Embassy. If you did, they would hang up," she charges. She said she had received a call to say she was on the list, but found on arrival she wasn't. "Other countries seem to care more about their people," she says.
"The Embassy did not help us," says her friend Toni Shweiky, who is married to a Lebanese. "I got out because of my connections with the military here.... You have war going on around you and you don't know where you stand."
But hardest was parting with family, Ms. Shweiky says. "I'm leaving my husband's family behind because they can't get out. Where are they going to go? Who's going to help them?"
A mother wiped away tears as she pushed a trolley through the port. An elderly couple walked along arm-in-arm and boarded the ship in silence.
Rana Elawar, a Philadelphia-based graphic designer and mother of two, said she felt "unbelievably sad. It just happened this way overnight."
• Wire material was used.