NORTH SALT LAKE — Jeremy Wardle kissed his wife, Hollie, goodbye at the Salt Lake airport and boarded a red-eye bound for the Dominican Republic.
That was eight days ago.
"I didn't know how it was going to work out. I just had the most overwhelming feeling that I was supposed to go and that I would be taken care of. I told Hollie, 'I have to go get her,' " Jeremy said.
What has happened since reads like a movie script.
The North Salt Lake couple had received word that Gabrielle — the daughter they have spent more than two years working to adopt — survived the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince Jan. 12. Her orphanage, Crèche Enfant Jesus, located several miles outside Haiti's capital city in Lamardelle, had escaped damage. Food and water, however, were scarce for the 80 children and infants in the orphanage's care.
"They were desperate," Hollie said. "Here are all these babies and they were running out of milk, everything."
Hollie had been working the phones since news of the earthquake. She had managed contact with Gina Duncan, who runs Crèche Enfant Jesus and was able to give her real-time updates of what was happening.
"She said, 'There is just death everywhere,' " Hollie said.
Duncan pleaded for help with getting baby formula and other supplies. Some infants were growing weaker by the hour.
"We definitely knew it was a race against time."
'We're going to help'
Jeremy arrived in Santo Domingo with only a few items: a small backpack, GPS coordinates of the orphanage downloaded from Google Earth and contact information of people who might be able to help.
His tentative plan was to arrange for a helicopter to fly him into Haiti, land in the open space next to the orphanage, drop off supplies and pick up 7-year-old Gabrielle.
Christina Baber — a Dominican woman who read about the Wardles on the Deseret News' Web site two days after the earthquake and contacted them with offers to help — arranged for Jeremy to get a ride to a rendezvous point with a search-and-rescue team from Utah.
"First thing I see when we pull up are guys in these bright orange shirts that say Washington County Search and Rescue … I told them who I was, I said 'I'm here to get my daughter.' I told them about all the babies at the Crèche," Jeremy said.
"They looked me in the eye and said 'We're going to help you get your daughter out. We're going to help your orphanage.' "
That was the first time Jeremy Wardle cried.
"I had been so alone, and now I had 12 men and an ER nurse who made this their mission."
Jeremy took the last empty seat in a supply caravan headed for the border town of Jimini, four hours from Santo Domingo — four hours closer to Gabrielle.
In Jimini, Jeremy Wardle met Jeremy Johnson and a team of pilots with Utah Haiti Relief (www.utahhaitirelief.org).
"Here are these guys flying food and water in to all these orphanages out in the perimeters of the city where there was no way aid was going to get through at all. They basically had created their own staging area on a baseball field in Jimini and were taking food and water in."
Jeremy explained his plight, and a plan was set to load a helicopter with supplies and head for Crèche Enfant Jesus the following morning.
He texted word to Hollie.
"Gina had told Hollie there was a premature baby who was really bad off. We knew we had to hurry."
With nightfall, all they could do was wait.
Jeremy rode with several of the rescue workers over to Jimini's local hospital.
"That's when I saw it for the first time," he said. "There were 1,200 to 1,500 people laying on the ground, tons of amputees. It was just massive suffering. There were only four doctors and there was moaning everywhere. Mothers holding babies, little kids … there was an old man with no family. His whole family died. He was crying and shaking … he had come out of surgery hours earlier and was just there on the ground with no blanket."
Back at the staging area, under the Jimini stars, he lay down by the helicopter.
He didn't sleep.
With sunrise, the Utah Haiti Relief helicopter was loaded up with food, water and baby formula and set off for Lamardelle. Duane Fielding piloted the R-44, while Lifeflight nurse Jan Call, aid volunteer CJ Wade and Jeremy all scouted for the orphanage using the Google Earth coordinates.
"It was Jan who spotted it," Jeremy said. "The aunties all started waving, clapping, jumping in the air … We got out of the chopper and they were like, 'You came!'"
Inside the orphanage, the crew learned the premature baby they were rushing to save had died. Still, there were many others who would be saved.
And then, for a dad in search of his daughter, the moment came.
"Gabby, as soon as she saw me, she said, 'Poppy Jeremy!' and she just ran to me," he said. "She's just so beautiful and sweet. She asked, 'Are we going on an avion?' I said I'm never going to leave you again. I'm not leaving here without you."
Duane Fielding pulled out the video camera and captured the reunion.
"Duane put his hand on his head," Jeremy said, "then put his hands on his knees and bawled. He said, 'I don't think I've ever cried'… Believe me, we've all bawled like babies a million times this week."
And the story, really, is just beginning.
A greater rescue
Jeremy stayed at the orphanage the next couple of days while Utah Haiti Relief ran daily flights back and forth bringing supplies to Crèche Enfant Jesus.
Duncan, meanwhile, worked round the clock in Port-au-Prince to fast-track visas for the children and babies in her care who had adoptive parents waiting.
Wednesday morning, Wardle got the good news that Duncan had Gabrielle's visa in hand.
"Then she said, 'I have to ask something of you, something greater.'
Duncan had visas for 21 children and babies who all needed to be airlifted out of the country.
"Jeremy Johnson made this all happen," Jeremy Wardle said. "There is no way any of this would have happened without him."
A southern Utah pilot and businessman, Johnson arranged for the helicopters and clearances to transport the 21 children — most of them 2 years and younger — from Lamardelle to the Port-au-Prince airport. Still, a jet would be needed to evacuate them to Florida.
Back home, Hollie made contact with Chances for Children, an Arizona-based nonprofit with connections to a private jet. The aircraft was scheduled to deliver aid workers and supplies the following day — and could bring the children to Ft. Lauderdale.
"Hollie said the jet would be only be on the ground a total of 40 minutes, so we had to have the babies there waiting and load them on as fast as we could," Jeremy said.
The following morning, Utah Haiti Relief landed three helicopters at once next to the orphanage.
"It was an awesome sight," Jeremy said. "We laid mattresses on the floor of the helicopters then put the babies on the mattresses."
As the helicopters slowly ascended, Jeremy looked out the window.
"The aunties were crying and waving to the kids. I look at Gabby, and tears are streaming down her face. I melted … it was finally real to her."
And real to the Utah father.
We got to the (Port-au-Prince) airport and there is the U.S. Air Force. They all held the babies for like an hour; it was like a little slice of happiness even for them."
What Jeremy and the others didn't know was they were at the wrong ramp.
"Hollie called frantically, saying 'Where are you guys? The jet is leaving …'"
By the time the caravan of children and babies got to the right ramp, the jet already was taxiing.
"I started yelling 'Somebody stop that plane!' " Jeremy said. "I thought that was it. We've missed it. We're not gonna get these kids out."
And then, with no explanation, the jet stopped.
"It was the pilot. He couldn't leave these kids," Jeremy said. "He radioed in, 'I've got to fuel up.' He told me when I got onboard, he said, he stopped for fuel so he could buy more time."
One more angel, as Jeremy calls them.
"I am bonded to these people for life ... Jeremy Johnson and those guys are still down there. They're still doing the work. You've gotta call it what it is — a miracle that happens through people with an incredible heart."
Baber, the Dominican woman who first helped Jeremy arrange a ride in Santo Domingo, has since coordinated the collection of 14,000 pounds of food and supplies to help support the children who remain at Crèche. An estimated 90 more children orphaned by the quake are expected to arrive any day. Utah Haiti Relief will help deliver the aid.
"They're gonna keep saving hundreds of lives," Jeremy said.
'We're in heaven'
Saturday evening, Jeremy and his daughter Gabrielle arrived home to the cheers and tears of family — including Hollie and the couple's other five children, who anxiously have waited to meet their new sister.
"I was just overcome when I saw them come down the escalator. To see her little face, our family felt complete," Hollie said.
From his backpack, Jeremy pulled out a photograph he snatched from the windowsill next to Gabrielle's bed just before leaving the orphanage. It is a picture the 7-year-old had been keeping of her mom and dad in America.
For him, it is a reminder of that moment when the helicopters lifted off the ground and he saw his daughter's face, tears streaming down her cheeks.
A song was playing on the iPod.
"They handed me the headphones," he said," and the line was, 'I'm finding it hard to believe, we're in heaven ...' "
Sammy Linebaugh is a freelance reporter who has worked in Haiti. She spent time at Crèche Enfant Jesus in March 2009. For more information, visit www.utah haitirelief.org. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org