ST. MAARTEN (CBSNewYork) — The New York National Guard rescued planeloads of Americans left stranded in the battered Caribbean after Irma.
For some, a dire situation turned even more harrowing before help arrived, as bands of robbers terrorized their hotels.
“We never thought we’d be home, we never thought it was even in the cards,” New Yorker, Lauren Stallworth told CBS2’s Ali Bauman.
New Yorker Scott Imbrosciano and his girlfriend Lauren Stallworth tried desperately to leave the island of St. Maarten where they were vacationing well before then category 5 Irma hit.
“We went Monday to the airport, and there were no flights, no charter flights, nothing,” he said.
The same held true on Tuesday. With no other option, the couple had no choice, but to hunker down in the hotel’s convention center.
“It was the only concrete place in the hotel,” Lauren said.
Still, it was no match for Irma’s 160 plus mph sustained winds.
“An employee of the hotel was near the door, and the door literally flew open, and he almost got sucked in. His feet were in the air, somebody nearby grabbed his arm, and a few other people came to help as well, literally pulled him in because he was being sucked in like a vacuum,” Scott said.
As tiles fell, and water poured from the ceiling, hotel staff grabbed what was in the room to block the doors.
“Tables, chairs, anything they possibly could,” Scott added.
Trying to keep Irma out.
“Everyone was screaming, panic,” Lauren recalled.
For 10 harrowing hours, they stood shoulder to shoulder with nearly 300 other guests, waiting for the storm to pass.
When it did, all of the rooms were completely caved in, and new troubles were on the horizon.
“People with machetes, people with long sticks, pipes,” Scott said.
The survivors banded together to protect themselves using room keys to identify one another.
“We were trying to secure our hotel so it would be like Fort Knox, so nobody could come in an attack,” Lauren said.
They were no longer considered guests. Hotel staff told them they were refugees, and would have to work.
Under leadership of the resort’s entertainment director, they organized into recovery teams; clearing debris, rationing food, and caring for young children with no chance of rescue in sight.
“We potentially had a helicopter secured, and it was attacked by armed locals with guns, and they couldn’t land,” Lauren said.
It might take weeks before they could think of leaving the island. The airport had been destroyed, and Hurricane Jose was soon approaching.
“We didn’t know how it could be possible to make it through a second one,” Lauren said.
On Friday night, a hotel official came and woke the couple up.
“He goes, okay, here’s the deal. We secured a jet for tomorrow morning with 99 available seats. you and Lauren are on the list. Be at the lobby at 6:45 a.m. and we’ll have a plane waiting for you to get out,” Scott said.
The 99 seats turned out to be only 80, and some had to stay behind.
Women, children, and the elderly were taken first. Then, the men were called to board by age — one by one from the eldest down.
“I couldn’t look. My eyes were closed, I was waiting to hear 39,” Lauren said.
They arrived back in New York on Saturday, an emotional airport reunion with worried loved ones.
“It’s hard sometimes to understand that everyone has a family. Everyone’s worried,” Scott said.
The couple returned with a greater appreciation for humanity.
It really was survival time. One doctor and a couple of medical students set up an infirmary — people were becoming dehydrated, and anyone with diabetes was running out of insulin. Food was available, but management locked up the alcohol to make sure no one got drunk and started fighting.