On Sunday afternoon, the C-17 from McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma was packed with more than 180 men, women and children, many with bittersweet stories that mixed celebration of their departure with sorrow over those left behind.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rita Tainia Leger sobbed as she wheeled her wounded father onto the deck of the Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft that would take her and her father, rescued after two days in earthquake rubble, to America.

These were not tears of joy, but rather of anguish. In the final minutes of her departure from Haiti, she became separated in an airport line from Sahrie, her 1-year-old daughter, who had to stay behind with Leger’s sister.

“They said that she couldn’t go with me, that she was too far behind,” cried Leger, who lives in Haiti but has American residency. “Please, can someone help me?”

On Sunday afternoon, the C-17 from McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma was packed with more than 180 men, women and children, many with bittersweet stories that mixed celebration of their departure with sorrow over those left behind.

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All of the passengers had ties to America, either through citizenship or residency, allowing them to gain a coveted place on the aircraft leaving this wrecked city for Orlando, Fla.

The elderly and the injured gained seats along the side of the aircraft, while others sat down in rows on the cargo deck, with white safety straps to hold them in place, as the C-17 taxied down the runway and winged north toward Florida.

Though three Air Force security officials — experts in “flight-deck denial” — were on hand, the boarding of the weary earthquake survivors up the rear tail ramp was orderly and peaceful.

Leger’s daughter was left behind with her sister, who was farther back in the airport line. Hopefully, they will board a later flight to America.

Others will never see their loved ones again.

Paule Desvarieux, a Haitian American from Miami, flew down to the island in December to visit family for a Christmas vacation that stretched into January. She now grieves the loss of her father, two sisters and friends who died in the earthquake.

Shortly after takeoff, Desvarieux collapsed into sleep.

“I was with them in house when the earthquake hit,” Desvarieux said. “I can’t talk about it anymore.”

Next to Desvarieux sat Yvon Leandre, a 42-year-old Haitian American from Immokalee, Fla., who raced back to Haiti to search for his mother. Flying into Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, he was able to reach his home city of Leogane, some 30 miles south of Port-au-Prince, by Wednesday night.

Leandre said his mother’s house was the only surviving structure on the block. He soon learned she had been safely evacuated.

So he turned his efforts Thursday to trying to save a young girl buried under the rubble. Someone said it was too dangerous and the concrete might collapse. But Leandre dug for about five hours and pulled the girl out alive.

Leandre, an auto-parts salesman, worked for several more days trying to dig out other people, but their voices grew fainter and he was not successful. He sustained himself on a stash of crackers and energy bars he had brought with him.

On Sunday, an exhausted Leandre, his hands chafed from digging, decided to return to Florida.

“If I could find a place here to get some rest, I would stay and go back to work,” Leader said. “But I can’t, so I am going home.”

Even for those with ties to America, it is tough finding a flight out of Haiti.

The pace of the air traffic, thanks to coordination efforts by the U.S. military, has increased from 60 flights to about a 100 a day. But thousands of Haitian Americans and others continue to wait for space on a northbound aircraft.

Virginie Matison, a 22-year-old from Palm Beach, Fla., is a diabetic who waited in a long line Sunday morning outside the U.S. Embassy in hopes of gaining a seat home. Her illness got her to the front of the line. On Sunday evening, she was on board the aircraft.

About a quarter of the flights landing at Port-au-Prince are U.S. military aircraft, including the C-17s, according to Capt. Dustin Doyle, a native of Whidbey Island who now serves with the 621st Contingency Response Wing based out of New Jersey.

Two aircraft from McChord’s 62nd Airlift Wing began Sunday doing relief flights to Haiti.

The C-17s, in emergency situations, can carry more than 200 people in the cargo bay hold, and a long line of would-be passengers had made it past initial security outside the airport to a second line just off the tarmac.

But many of these passengers do not have a final clearance to go as the C-17s, having disgorged their cargo loads, are readied for a return to the United States.

So some flights have left with less than 100 people on board, according to Doyle.

The McChord C-17, though largely filled, had room for a few more people.

One of the pilots, 1st Lt. Joseph Hurley, had hoped to get Leger’s daughter on board but found out that was not possible. As the C-17 lifted off, Leger clutched a backpack emblazoned with her daughter’s name, Sahrie, hoping for a reunion in the days ahead.

When the aircraft landed, people clapped politely, and there were a few cheers.

Then, the rear ramp swung down, and the survivors walked off into the Florida night.

Hal Bernton: 206464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com