KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Reaching with big hands to pat small, tousled heads, a group of New York City firefighters and police officers, all touched by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, delivered tons of donated food and supplies to Afghan orphans.
``It's a gesture of healing, for all of us,'' said Fire Department Chaplain John Delendick, one of three firefighters and three police officers who flew to Bagram air base north of the capital aboard a cargo plane packed with nearly 55 tons of donated rice, cooking oil, powdered milk and blankets.
In the courtyard of the orphanage _ a drab complex in a war-ruined district of Kabul _ several hundred children ranging in age from 3 to 13 lined up in rows on Friday, chanting ``Welcome!'' at their teachers' prompting.
The firefighters and police officers _ clad in heavy work jackets emblazoned with ``FDNY'' and ``NYPD'' _ moved down the line, patting heads and asking, ``What's up, guys?'' Little girls in spangly new headscarves thrust bouquets at them.
At a ceremony in the orphanage auditorium, the six men sat and listened quietly while a 10-year-old boy sang Quranic verses and the institution's director thanked them for coming.
Then they gave some thanks of their own _ saying they were grateful for a chance to help.
``Coming here, I kinda thought I knew what to expect,'' said firefighter Joseph Higgins of Ladder Company 111 in Brooklyn, whose firefighter brother Timothy Higgins died in the World Trade Center. An interpreter rendered his heavy New York accent into Dari, the local language.
``I was wrong about that _ I'm extremely humbled by all this,'' continued Higgins, 40, of Freeport, Long Island. ``We brought a planeload of supplies, but I know you could probably use a hundred planeloads of supplies .... We're going to have to do something to help out the folks here in Afghanistan.''
Police Det. Thomas McDonald hefted a sack of donated sugar across the stage, then accepted the gift of an embroidered shirt from a little girl. ``A very small gift from an orphan child,'' read the attached note.
He, like the others, said he was touched by the enthusiastic reception from the children. ``How could you not be, looking at these beautiful little faces?'' asked McDonald, 31, of Blue Point, Long Island, whose unit lost 14 officers on Sept. 11.
Conditions in the orphanage are primitive, though improving since an Associated Press reporter visited in late November. The two-story building is full of broken windows and the concrete-walled halls are freezing.
The children mainly subsist on soup and rice; there are no toys or pictures. Dormitory-style rooms are bare except for steel cots with worn sheets and frayed matting on the floor.
Most of the children got a new outfit for the just-passed Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, but in the chill winter air, none had gloves, and some wore plastic sandals.
Baths come only once a week and the orphanage dispensary has no medical supplies.
Some of the children have lost both parents, but more have one parent who cannot support them. Some children live here with two or three siblings.
Watching the arrival, few of them had any grasp of events linking their world to that of these large, strangely dressed men.
``I think they have come to be our friends, but I don't know why,'' whispered 10-year-old Fawad. He had never heard of the World Trade Center or Manhattan, though he did know who the Taliban and Osama bin Laden were.
Before coming, the men met with American troops stationed at Bagram, exchanging handshakes and embraces. ``That was really important to us, to see these guys _ they're heroes,'' said detective McDonald.
The troops, though, thought it was the other way around.
``These are the guys who ran to the rescue of all those people,'' said Bill, a captain in the Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th Mountain Division, whose full name could not be used. ``I think everything we've done from Sept. 11 on has been to honor these guys.''
The aid flight was sponsored by the Spirit of America fund, created by Guinness UDV and its parent company, Diageo Plc.
The trip, via Azerbaijan, took 55 hours of flying time _ to spend a total of about six hours on the ground. But no one was complaining.
``Are you kidding, seeing how we lit up their faces?'' said Higgins. ``It was worth the trip.''