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Family Joyous With Cicippio ‘Free at Last’ : Hometown: After many false alarms of past, real thing comes in a 4 a.m. telephone call.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After more than five years of waiting, Thomas Cicippio received the call just after 4 a.m. Monday. It was the State Department, with official confirmation that the captors of his brother Joseph finally had made good on their promise to let him go.

Thomas, 68, a retired postal worker who still lives in the family hometown of Norristown, Pa., had been his brother’s unofficial spokesman ever since he was taken captive in Beirut on Sept. 12, 1986.

Choking back tears, Thomas stepped onto his front lawn to address the assemblage of reporters, cameras and microphones that had been in place ever since the Revolutionary Justice Organization hinted late Sunday that Joseph J. Cicippio, 61, would be released in a matter of hours.

There had been false alarms in the past, most recently in August and again in September, but this time the promise had been kept.

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“The U.N. says that Joseph is on his way to Damascus,” Thomas told the reporters. “This is the news we have been waiting for. Thanksgiving certainly did come on a Monday this year. Not only Thanksgiving, but Christmas and every other holiday you can think of.”

Thus began a hectic morning. Within a few hours, Thomas Cicippio gave interviews to three television network morning news programs, summoned other family members to his home on the edge of Norristown, a Philadelphia suburb, and made plans to see his brother for the first time since 1984 when Joseph left Norristown for a job as deputy comptroller at American University of Beirut.

Joseph, meanwhile, gave a brief televised interview at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus, where he was handed over to U.S. authorities. Later Monday, he was flown to the U.S. military hospital in Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt, where all released American hostages are taken for a preliminary medical checkup and a first-impression debriefing.

Thomas, who watched the broadcast with his wife Frances, two of Joseph’s sons, a sister and other family members, expressed shock and dismay at his brother’s gaunt appearance, his gray hair and his familiar beard shaved off.

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“He looks as though he’s aged quite a bit,” Thomas told CBS. “He looks very thin and very frail. But I hope when I see him . . . he looks a lot better.”

The Cicippios’ sister, 71-year-old Helen Fazio, has terminal cancer and was told last June that she had only two months to live. Early Monday, she hurried over to Thomas’ house, feeling assured that she would be able to see her brother again.

“It’s just like I’m hugging the whole world!” she exclaimed.

But Fazio, too, was disturbed by what she saw in the satellite broadcast from Damascus. In tears, she told the reporters: “He’s not well. He doesn’t look well at all.”

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Another sister, Rose, died of cancer a few months after Joseph was kidnaped. In fact, her death came Dec. 2, 1986, five years to the day before Joseph’s release.

Joseph had seven children from an earlier marriage to a Norristown woman, and two sons still live nearby. One son, Joseph Jr., died of a heart attack at the age of 35 in November, 1990. There are three grandchildren that the former hostage has never seen.

“I don’t believe Joseph is aware of anything that has taken place in the past five years,” his brother told NBC’s “Today” program. “What’s so ironic about today is that this is the fifth anniversary of my sister Rose’s death.”

Thomas said that he will break the news about Rose and that one of the surviving sons, either David or Eric, will tell Joseph about Joseph Jr.

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In other respects, Thomas told network interviewers, not all that much had changed.

“There has always been a lot of love in the family and it just continues. There is no such thing as being brought closer together. The Cicippio family has always been very, very close.”

Thomas Cicippio had another matter to attend to Monday. Once the family members had assembled, he stepped out onto the lawn once again to nail up, over a sign that had recorded the days of Joseph’s captivity, a “FREE AT LAST” placard he had been saving for years.

Also on the lawn are signs dedicated to all the other captives, also bearing cards counting the days. The signs “won’t come down until every single hostage is free,” Thomas told CBS. “And I am hoping that when all the hostages are back home, that they can come to Norristown and come to my house and help me take the signs down.”

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By mid-morning, Thomas was exhausted, and he declined further interviews. Alan Melnick, Ruth Fazio’s son-in-law, filled in for a time as family spokesman to explain that Thomas, his wife, and Joseph’s sons, David and Eric, were planning a departure for Frankfurt. Later, aware that the doctors in Wiesbaden would need more time to carry out an examination, the trip was postponed.


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