Beverly Pugh stepped from a JetBlue airliner Saturday night into Salt Lake City, glad to leave behind the murky streets of New Orleans where she lay for three days after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Pugh was even glad to find out her plane was not landing in Texas — which is where the 152 passengers aboard her flight thought they were headed.
"It didn't matter where I went. All that is over now," said Pugh, 40. "If I had to make it one more day like that, I don't think I could have made it."
But Pugh also left behind two of her sons. She lost track of them after being rescued by a boat from the side of I-10. Pugh spent the rest of the week at New Orleans' convention center until she was able to get on a flight out.
"It was an experience I wouldn't want to see anybody else go through," she said. "There weren't any lights. The smell was ridiculous."
Pugh and other Louisiana hurricane survivors received a warm welcome from the Utah National Guard, some state lawmakers and clergy from various Utah churches as they stepped from the donated JetBlue flight at 7 p.m. Saturday. Applause filled the air as the first passenger off the plane, a woman in a wheelchair, was carried by emergency personnel.
One 100-year-old woman refused to be carried off the plane, opting instead to slowly walk down the stairs on her own power.
Three additional National Guard airplanes were to arrive during the night, bringing another 150 evacuees.
National Guardsmen and state officials led the new arrivals, hand in hand, to get food and medical attention from a makeshift triage unit at the National Guard air base. The evacuees were then quickly ushered to buses that will take all 300 refugees arriving Saturday night and early today to Camp Williams near Bluffdale.
Most of the evacuees carried small bags or had nothing as they streamed from the commercial jetliner onto the pavement. Below, flight crews unloaded the baggage of sparse belongings wrapped in trash bags.
Each evacuee was given a bag of toiletry supplies, candy and some other food items. They were also given a piece of paper that explained what would be happening to them over the next few days and a little information about Utah.
Several officials were teary-eyed as the evacuees — most of them black — filed out of the plane.
"It's just to extend our heartfelt welcome to people from Louisiana who have been through so much," said state Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, who is black and said he wanted to be among the welcoming party because he thought it would help comfort the refugees to see a little diversity.
Mike Mower, director of constituent services in the governor's office, stood at the bottom of the plane's stairs, helping more fragile women and children deplane. The flight had 30 elderly passengers, 15 in wheelchairs and 10 children under the age of 12.
"It was a very emotional event. The people were so appreciative. It brought all of the emotions to the surface realizing what our fellow Americans have been through," Mower said.
The evacuees were taken through an initial medical screening to ensure they could make the bus trip to Camp Williams. Two people were sent to the hospital by ambulance. Ron Gebhart, chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said one person was injured during the hurricane and another appeared to be suffering from a chronic illness.
Several people, he said, needed medicines they have gone without for days. All of the immobile evacuees needed new wheelchairs because they were not allowed to bring their own on the flight.
"We were a little surprised about what good condition they're in," Gebhart said. "We clearly had enough staff to deal with the issues."
The evacuees will go through a more intensive screening this weekend at Camp Williams, where medical staff will determine whether anyone suffers from water-borne diseases from living in unsanitary conditions.
Many of the evacuees were surprised to see mountains and the Great Salt Lake when they stepped off the plane.
Utah National Guard Assistant Adjunct General Bruce Frandsen said the refugees were told they were getting on a plane to Texas when they took off.
"One man said, 'This doesn't look like Houston. But it looks good,' " Frandsen said.
For the evacuees, anything was better than the conditions they were living in just hours earlier.
Phillip Clay said he had to swim through water that was neck deep at times. He was eventually plucked off the roof of a school by the Coast Guard. All that he had left he carried in a small backpack.
"This is really a pleasure," he said of being in Utah. "I'm overjoyed, really."
The last time Darrell Johnson saw his wife, Carol, he put her in a rowboat that was transporting residents off their roofs to safety. As of Saturday, he still had not heard from her.
"I lost everything I own," he said.
Johnson, a retired schoolteacher, said when water first started going into his house, "I thought it would be a minor thing, then whoosh."
Once Johnson made it to the Superdome, he said, conditions quickly went sour. Toilets became plugged or overflowed, and the stench both inside and outside grew quickly as people left urine and feces wherever they wanted. Food and water were available but not in great supply, he said.
Not having access to a TV or a newspaper for days, Johnson said he didn't even fully know what was happening around him.
"You're hungry and ignorant to what's going on," he said of what it was like waiting for help.
Once Johnson stepped off the plane in Salt Lake City, "It was like a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I don't know if I can explain it," he said.
Saturday, what Johnson said he really wanted now was a hamburger. And as for what he knew about Utah prior to arriving, "I know the Utah Jazz. I know you stole our team."
After getting the first planeload onto buses, Lt. Col. Dave Thomas of the Utah National Guard breathed a sigh of relief after a marathon 24-hour preparation for the 300 evacuees.
"I'll be excited once we see them all here. It's kind of like anticipating Christmas," Thomas said. "We just want to make sure we treat them right. They've been through a lot, and we don't want to add to that."
Thomas and a team of National Guardsmen, state officials, Red Cross workers and Health Department staff were ready and waiting for the first load of refugees.
After the initial reception, Thomas said, flights with the remaining refugees will likely come sporadically through the next few days.
"Right now we're not quite sure after these four airplanes. I'm sure we'll have them coming in at weird hours," he said.