Pa. town awaits news after hikers freed in Iran

Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal, poses for a portrait outside her home Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Elkins Park, Pa. Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, the mother of Shane Bauer, the parents of two U.S. hikers held in Iran for nearly two years on espionage charges, say they are starting a hunger strike Thursday in solidarity for their sons, whom they believe are fasting while awaiting trial. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

September 21, 2011 4:12:06 PM PDT
A suburban Philadelphia community that had adopted "Free the Hikers" as its unofficial motto for more than two years began to celebrate Wednesday as two jailed Americans - including hometown boy Josh Fattal - were released from an Iranian prison and began the long journey home.

Fattal, his friend Shane Bauer and a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, were jailed on espionage charges in July 2009 after hiking near Iran's unmarked border with Iraq. Shourd was released last year on $500,000 bail, but her fellow hikers had remained imprisoned. The three, all friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley, have maintained their innocence.

"It's the answer to prayers," said Jerry Weissman, 68, a lawyer who lives three doors down from the Fattals. "All of our hearts have been in this for them. Thank God it's over."

Fattal and Bauer, both 29, were released from an Iranian prison and soon boarded a private plane to fly them out of the country after Iran's judiciary approved a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal.

There was no answer Wednesday at the Fattal home, where pictures of the hikers and a sign reading "Free Josh and Shane" adorned the mailbox. Weissman said he has been inspired by how hard Fattal's mother, Laura, and brother, Alex, worked every day trying to secure his release.

The family was in Oman to greet Josh Fattal on Wednesday, according to a statement released by all three families through a spokeswoman.

"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," the statement said. "We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us."

Back in the U.S., Elkins Park was celebrating with them from afar.

"It's been a long two years," said Earl Henderson, 65, another neighbor. "It's a good thing that they (Iran) finally did the right thing."

At Cheltenham High School, where Fattal was student council president and graduated in 2000, students gathered in the cafeteria to sign a banner welcoming the hikers home. The school had been updating its marquee outside with "Free the Hikers" and the number of days in captivity, but Wednesday it was changed to: "Hikers are FREE!!"

Anatomy teacher Maria Oshoko, who taught Fattal when he was in middle school, was overjoyed by the news of the release, describing the feeling as "exhilarating." Her son had also been childhood friends with Josh.

"I was constantly in prayer," Oshoko said of the long trial of Fattal's detention. "It was really hard to see his picture on television."

Oshoko's son, Will Harper, who now works in the Washington, D.C., area, described himself and Fattal as kind of class clowns and both avid basketball players. The fact that Fattal was "smart as a whip" and had a good sense of humor probably helped get him through his ordeal, Harper said.

"It's just a big sigh of relief, a big weight off my chest," he said.

The community's happiness was tempered with caution.

"The anxiety you're hearing is `Are they on the plane, is this real?"' said principal Elliott Lewis.

The Americans' families have said the three were hiking in northern Iraq's scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they may have accidentally strayed over the unmarked border with Iran.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., lauded both the men and the families in a statement, saying he looked forward to welcoming them home.

"These innocent men suffered for far too long at the hands of injustice," Casey said. "Their release is a testament to the hard work and commitment of their families who have not rested over the past two years."

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