Flights between Miami and Haiti resume for the first time in almost two weeks, crowding airports with passengers escaping the troubled country -- or headed there.
BY DAPHNE DURET AND LUISA YANEZ
Getting a seat aboard American Airlines' first Miami-bound flight out of Haiti in two weeks proved an exercise in stamina, perseverance and luck, said South Florida residents who made it out Tuesday.
''It was crazy, crazy,'' said Jean Philippe, 42, of Boynton Beach, speaking outside U.S. Customs at Miami International Airport about ''the madhouse'' he left behind at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince.
Philippe said that before dawn, hundreds of people seeking seats began pushing and shoving their way to the American Airlines counter, desperate to make one of the flights out Tuesday, the first departing at 11:30 a.m. as the airline resumed service for the first time since Feb. 26.
''It was first come, first served, if you didn't have a ticket; it was bad,'' said Philippe, a professional driver who migrated to the United States in 1978. The quest for seats, he said, continued until just before takeoff. ``Too many people got on my plane, and they had to ask them to get off.''
An American Airlines spokeswoman said she had no exact number of passengers on the flights going back and forth from Port-au-Prince to Miami, Fort Lauderdale and New York on Tuesday. However, the demand remains ''very heavy'' into and out of Port-au-Prince and availability is limited all week long.
Many of those trying to make it back were stranded there after American suspended service.
Philippe had flown to Haiti on Feb. 20 on his honeymoon. ''We had some fun, but not much. You had to stay indoors.'' His new wife, he said, will return on a Thursday flight.
''I'm glad I'm here,'' Philippe said, as he told of the roadblocks and tires on fire along the roadway to the airport. ``It was scary there.''
Naomi Legagneur, 31, of Kendall, was another who made it out on the same flight.
Vacationing in Haiti, her native country, she was stranded there after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
''The airport was a madhouse,'' said Legagneur, an employee of AT&T Wireless. ``I can't tell you how bad it was. It was madness. I'm glad to be back, but I also love my country and hate what's happening.''
The demand for seats on flights from Miami-to-Haiti was also high.
Tuesday morning, Jean-Louis Bleus made his clarinet sing tribute to Haiti while he sat near a ticket counter waiting for his 11:20 a.m. flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince. He played Haitian folks songs, like Yo Yo and La Tibonite, and another he wrote about Aristide.
He played the Aristide song on his clarinet, then sang the lyrics in a deep baritone.
`IN GOD'S HANDS'
''It means if Aristide doesn't come back, we'll find someone new to lead the country,'' he said. ``We'll be in God's hands.''
When he wasn't playing his clarinet, he sang French love songs, letting his friend Francis Gocain do the talking.
''It's been 22 days since my mother died there,'' Gocain, 66, said in Creole. ``Because of everything going on, I could not go back until now.''
Neither they nor their friend, Gerard Catin, brought much luggage with them. The three men, who live in Miami, said they were headed to Haiti on family business.
Hours earlier, dozens of people loaded heavy suitcases, bags and boxes onto scales at the American Airlines ticket counter hoping to board the earliest flight of the day, a 7:30 a.m. jet to Port-au-Prince.
Some, like friends Marie Carmel and Rosette Joseph, live in Haiti and were in Miami on vacation when violence in their country forced them into an extended stay.
''I'm not afraid to go back home, it just saddens my spirit to see the destruction and the fighting that's been done,'' Joseph, 36, said.
Others waiting for the flight, like ophthalmologist Serge Prosper, live in Miami but travel to Haiti often. Prosper waited for a Port-au-Prince flight on standby, anxious to get back to the patients at his clinic in Haiti who have not seen him for more than a month.
''Most of them, when they don't see me they won't refill their prescriptions,''
Prosper said. ``I want to go back and see them before some of them get
worse or become blind.''