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Ben Avon mother's phone calls set off dramatic rescue mission

| Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

A day after one nation lost its capital, phones began ringing in Washington.

Last Wednesday morning, Jamie and Alison McMutrie's mother, Diane, called Pennsylvania's U.S. senators, representatives and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, touching off a weeklong rescue effort that reached from Western Pennsylvania to Port-au-Prince in Haiti, and back.

Rep. Jason Altmire was among the first she called. She told him her daughters were stuck in the ruins with more than 100 children.

"We're going to need your help getting them out."

Within a week, Altmire and Gov. Ed Rendell would board a plane to Port-au-Prince to help retrieve two Americans and 54 orphaned Haitians. Their involvement grew from escalating concerns about the two Ben Avon women and the children they cared for as conditions in Haiti's capital city deteriorated.

Altmire began by calling the National Security Council, Department of State and White House, speaking to many of the same people as Sen. Bob Casey Jr. — and getting the same answers.

"After a tragedy ... you cannot just fly in, scoop up a bunch of kids and fly out," Altmire said.

The earthquake stranded thousands of Haitian orphans. American families were adopting as many as 900 of them. Letting a few out could create a mad rush to evacuate the rest, inundating an overworked relief office, Altmire said he was told. The State Department told Casey it would try to set up a central site to organize an evacuation, a process still undone.

When word of the stranded sisters spread, former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, a Republican considering a challenge to Altmire, tried to organize a rescue with Dr. Mary Carrasco at A Child's Place at Mercy.

Pressed to help, charities produced 3,700 pounds of medical supplies, food, clothing, diapers, baby wipes, winter coats, a few toys and even car seats for the orphans' ride from Pittsburgh International Airport. The Hyatt Regency, connected to the airport by a moving walkway, donated a ballroom to store the goods.

As rising frustration in Haiti degenerated into lawlessness, looters began stealing water that aid workers brought to the BRESMA orphanage the McMutries ran. The children became dehydrated, and the women were afraid.

"Two young American women with a bunch of sick children is a pretty inviting target for people who are willing to do anything to get some supplies," Altmire said. "My concern from the beginning was Jamie and Ali. They're my constituents. I wanted to bring them home."

He talked to Jamie on Saturday and tried to scale back expectations.

"What is the scenario here if we can't get all these kids home?" Altmire asked.

"We're not leaving one kid behind," she told him.

UPMC's lobbyist, Leslie McCombs, called Gov. Ed Rendell. He had talked to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, but approval to evacuate the children was moving slowly.

Rendell saw Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph on CNN on Saturday and called the station. CNN connected him to Joseph, who told Rendell if he wanted the extraction to work, Rendell had to be on the flight. He and Altmire decided to join the mission to lend their titles to the effort, should anything go wrong.

UPMC found an anonymous donor to charter a plane from Republic Airways and called a meeting with county health officials and Carrasco on Sunday night. They decided to combine the evacuation effort with the aid mission Buchanan and Carrasco set in motion.

The flight would leave in the morning. The plan was to have a military escort pick up the sisters and orphans Monday, take them to the U.S. Embassy for processing and then to the airport.

Congestion at the airport was so bad, the military allowed the plane to remain on the ground one hour.

"It was a lot like building a roller-coaster while you're riding on it," Altmire said.

The plan began to fall apart as they approached Port-au-Prince about 6 p.m. Air traffic controllers denied them clearance to land. The captain told controllers: "The governor of Pennsylvania is on the plane."

That worked.

Rendell, his wife Marjorie, McCombs and Altmire emerged from the plane to find the women were at the orphanage. The military escort that was supposed to pick them up never arrived, and they were afraid to leave. Rendell said he persuaded them to ride buses and vans to the embassy.

Altmire called the National Security Council, which told military controllers to keep the plane on the ground 90 minutes more. When that time was up, the plane was ordered to leave. The orphans remained at the embassy.

"I remember watching it leave and thinking, 'Now what?'" Altmire said.

The orphans arrived a few hours later, and State Department and military officials at the airport began the long process of checking paperwork.

Five hours into their one-hour mission, a C-17 military transport plane landed and began unloading cargo. Officials told Rendell and Altmire they could hitch a ride back to Orlando, but the plane would take off as soon as it was empty. Four or five of the children didn't have proper paperwork to leave, Altmire said.

Tempers grew short, and Altmire called the White House.

"He got someone in the White House to tell the (National Security Council) on the ground to let them go," Rendell said.

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