The gray-haired woman pressed two arthritic fingers against the computer screen to better focus her 73-year-old eyes.
''There we are!'' exclaimed Maria del Carmen Guzman of Hialeah, her eyes filling with tears. Right there, on the master passenger list of Cubans who fled the communist island on the famed Freedom Flights, she spotted her name and those of her late husband and two sons.
Now, other Cuban exiles in South Florida and across the country who arrived penniless and with less than a week's worth of clothing in their suitcases can experience the same sense of personal history with Wednesday's launching of The Miami Herald's Cuban Freedom Flights Database Project.
This unique, permanent database is believed to be the only one available to the public, according to Cuban exile history experts. It includes the names and arrival dates of the 265,000 exiles who boarded the life-changing 45-minute flights.
Freedom fliers can help make corrections and enhance the database by sending photos and memories from their early days in Miami, or last days in Cuba, to FreedomFlights@MiamiHerald.com.
The charters from Varadero to Miami ran twice each weekday from 1965 through 1973. They represent the largest, longest resettlement program of Cuban refugees ever sponsored by the U.S. government, financed with a $12 million budget and the help of religious and volunteer agencies.
The flights were approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson after a September speech by Fidel Castro in which he announced that any ''anti-revolutionary'' Cuban wishing to leave the island could do so. With all commercial flights from Havana to Miami suspended after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro's announcement sparked a boatlift out of the Cuban port of Camarioca, as relatives from Miami hired boats to fetch loved ones.
Three thousand made it out before Johnson declared the exodus unsafe and began negotiations with Cuba to set up what ultimately came to be known as the Cuban Freedom Flights, or los vuelos de la libertad.
`TIDES OF HISTORY'
''And so we welcome the Cuban people,'' an emotional Johnson said at a news conference thanking Congress for passing an emergency immigration bill to finance the flights. ``For the tides of history run strong, and in another day, the Cubans can return to their homeland to find it cleansed of terror and free from fear.''
As refugees kept coming, the flights ultimately led to the passing of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, drawn up to facilitate quick entry and residency status to the new arrivals. At their height, with about 1,000 Cubans arriving weekly, the Freedom Flights were instrumental in transforming Miami's Little Havana into a bustling Hispanic epicenter by the early 1970s.
''Freedom Flight Cubans were a very significant wave of refugees,'' said Juan Clark, a Miami Dade College sociology professor and an expert on the immigration patterns of Cuban exiles. ``The U.S. government had tried to spread them out, but it didn't work. Many of those who were initially resettled by Catholic agencies to places like New Jersey, New York and Chicago eventually also moved to Miami.''
Before the start of the Freedom Flights, Washington estimated the number of Cuban exiles who fled the island since the start of the revolution in the early 1950s at 270,000. About 180,000 settled in Miami and 90,000 in other U.S. cities. By the official end of the Freedom Flights, the exile numbers increased to more than 615,000.