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WASHINGTON — Five of the septuplets born at Georgetown University Hospital on Thursday were breathing on their own Sunday — and a sixth is expected to do so by today. In his first interview, the infants’ father said Sunday night that he and his wife are especially joyful about the births because two of their children died in the past five years.

“God took two of them, and he gave us seven,” said Fahad Qahtani, 29, father of the third known set of septuplets to survive birth. “We thank Him for it all the time.”

Qahtani, a Saudi high school teacher studying at George Washington University, said he and his wife came to the United States three years ago, with hopes of saving the life of their youngest child, then 6 months old. The boy was on a waiting list in Pittsburgh for an organ transplant, he said.

But the child died before the transplant came.

Afterward, Qahtani decided to stay in the country to pursue his master’s degree in the computer field. Always wishing for a large family — ideally, 12 children — Qahtani and his 28-year-old wife, whom he declined to name, kept trying for the large brood they imagined. When she had difficulty getting pregnant again, he said, they opted for fertility drugs — and found themselves surprised by the number of eggs that became fertilized.

“We hope and we pray for them to get better,” he said of the babies, whose weight ranged from 2 pounds to 2 pounds 7 ounces at birth. “We pray for them to be healthy.” He said his wife is feeling well after the cesarean section delivery at 11:25 p.m. Thursday. “She is so, so happy,” he said.

The babies, named for members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia, are, in order of birth: son Bandar; daughter Hayfa; son Naife; son Shamma; daughter Abdalla; son Abdulaziz; son Sultan. “We want to show our love for this family,” he said.

Doctors said that by mid-afternoon Sunday, five of the infants, lying in warmers in the neonatal intensive care unit, were breathing without ventilators. To ease their way during a still-delicate time, pronged tubes have been placed in their nostrils to release a steady stream of pressurized air.

“These babies have had a great start, but we are by no stretch of the imagination out of the woods,” said Siva Subramanian, chief of neonatology at Georgetown University Hospital.

“Right now, these babies are still unstable,” Subramanian said. “The course of a premature baby is almost like a yo-yo. It goes up and down many times in a day or over several days. In the next few weeks, the ups and downs become less and less.”

Qahtani said the family lost 6-month-old Salam, who needed small bowel transplant, in 1998. Two years earlier, they lost their 3-year-old daughter, Hadil, who needed a liver transplant. Late Sunday, it was unclear whether the medical traumas experienced by the Qahtanis’ other children might indicate any problems for their newborns.

The septuplets — delivered at 28 1/2 weeks, about 11 weeks shy of a full-term pregnancy — are tended round the clock, each with his or her own nurse. All are receiving caffeine to stimulate regular breathing.

The key to the lack of complications thus far was probably the mother’s serenity during pregnancy, Subramanian said.

“This is a very highly charged, complex health situation, and she went through it really handling stress in a very good way,” he said. “I think it’s because of her deep faith — it’s like passing the burden to someone else.”

During his wife’s pregnancy, Qahtani said, he bought her a large burgundy recliner to sleep in, while he slept on a couch nearby. It was hard at times to keep his mind on his schoolwork, he said.

“When she slept at night, then I would go to study,” he said.

The couple also has a son who is 9. His father said that after his new five brothers and two sisters were born, one of his first comments was: “I’m the leader.” His father went on to reflect: “After his brother died, he always prayed to God to have a lot of brothers and sisters.”

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, phoned the proud new father of the septuplets shortly after the birth, which was overseen by 50 doctors and nurses.

The family has received strong support from Saudi government officials, who have said they typically cover medical costs. The ambassador “spoke with me and my wife and said, ’If you want anything, I’m your big brother.’ This means in my culture, ’Anything you want, I will do it for you,’” Qahtani said.

The family has kept so quiet about their momentous news that only Sunday did it begin to make the rounds among neighbors in their Falls Church, Va., condominium tower, into which the family moved 14 months ago — as a household of three.

Now they are a family of 10.

“They’re my neighbors? Oh my God!,” said Neeran Saraf, who lives three doors down and immediately contemplated organizing a welcome-home celebration.

As the idea of septuplets sank in, Saraf found herself considering a few practical thoughts. First: “The unit is two-bedroom. I don’t think they will fit.”

Then: “I don’t think all those strollers will fit in one elevator.”

The floor where the family resides includes several families with children, but Mable Fink, their next-door neighbor, said, “It’s very quiet on this end of the hall.” She added, “It may not be anymore, once I get seven kids next door.

The septuplets are expected to remain hospitalized for several months.

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