CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- What was supposed to be a joyous time in the life of Airman Basic Corey Clendenin, who was celebrating with his new bride, Tierni, on the island of St. Maarten, turned into a life and death situation and rattled the members of the 130th Airlift Wing to the core when Hurricane Irma struck last week.
During the buildup to this unprecedented storm, Clendenin and his wife, the daughter of 130th Airlift Wing’s Equal Opportunity Officer Capt. Connie Bevino, had read weather reports and spoken with the staff of their resort about whether to evacuate the island or stay in place, whom reassured them that the storm was nothing to fear. It wasn’t until they attempted to get a flight home earlier in the week that they discovered that they would be riding out the storm because all the flights had been cancelled or booked.
“On Tuesday, the maid knocked on our door and relayed the information that the hurricane had been upgraded to a Category 5 and it was headed straight for us,” he explained. “We made every effort to attempt to call the airport for a flight and even phoned the harbor as a last-ditch effort.”
That’s when the reality set in for Tierni. She described a feeling of calm, despite the situation, because of the reassurance of the workers. They had hurricane-proof windows, backup generators which would surely ensure her life-saving diabetes medicine wouldn’t go bad, and the couple even did a last-minute snack run to hold them over until the generators kicked on.
Irma made landfall at around 2 a.m., and Corey and Tierni made their way to the safest place they could in the tiny condo, the hallway. As the storm moved across the island over the next few hours, they heard the wind howl and beat against the outside of their room and the rain pelting down around them and then all was calm.
“The water went out around 4 [a.m.], cell service went down around 5 [a.m.], and my last text message went out around six that morning,” Corey explained.
They thought they had survived the worst of it. They walked outside to assess the damages only to come across a weird phenomenon of crabs crawling up the side of the walls outside the resort.
“That should have been a big sign for us,” Tierni said. “It just seemed so weird to see that happening.”
Soon after, the hotel maintenance worker came by to check on the two and advised them that they calm was caused from the eye of the storm being directly over top of them. He said, “get ready, the worst is yet to come.”
That’s when all hell broke loose as Irma’s full force ravaged the island.
The windows flew off first, and then Corey and Tierni were suctioned against the wall in the hall, all they could do was listen as light fixtures blew off the ceiling and loud crashes enveloped what little sound they could make out from the intense wind, rain and pressure destroying the room.
“It was indescribable,” said Tierni. “There was stuff falling everywhere, the water was sucked out of the toilet, and rain was filling up the floor inch by inch.”
At this time, the couple crawled to the bathroom to seek better shelter and took turns pushing their bodies against the door as the hinges bowed at Irma’s forceful pressure. Even the floor tiles became warped due to the pressure.
“It was just really scary,” Tierni recalled.
The storm rolled on for almost four more hours as the two hunkered down, shifting between holding the door and waiting for relief to come.
As the skies cleared up, the couple grabbed their things and ventured out of their room and to the main lobby of the resort to talk with people and see what damages had been sustained. Their room was uninhabitable as there was four or more inches of water throughout the rooms and everything had been rain soaked. Everything was ruined.
“We prepped wrong,” she noted. “We were so reliant on the hotel’s generators kicking on and the amenities they said would be available, that we weren’t as prepared as we should have been. Some of our food spoiled and we just weren’t expecting to see the devastation that came from it.”
There was one problem, the generators never turned on for extended periods, nor was her diabetes medicine able to withstand the rain and wind that blasted into their room.
That night, Corey was able to use the phone of another hotel patron who had cell service to get a message out to his father back in West Virginia and let him know that they were okay and would get back with information was soon as possible.
On Thursday morning, Corey and Tierni checked the airport, which was utterly demolished and being guarded by military forces from Holland, and were looking for shelter and food. It was then that they heard from authorities that it may be up to two weeks before they could get home.
“I knew then I wasn’t going to make it and it sunk in. The airport wasn’t even an airport anymore and there were mattresses and sand littered across the runway,” she recalled. “At that point, I knew half of my supplies were damaged and I would get an infection if I tried to use them. When she said ‘two weeks,’ I thought, ‘I don’t have two weeks.’”
After a full day of searching for any relief, a glimpse of hope came and vanished when an aircraft seemed to have attempted a landing, only to do a touch-and-go.
They began to see people walking the streets openly carrying firearms and machetes, looting the vacant hotels. They quickly made their way back toward the hotel and were able to get out a desperate phone call on a borrowed phone to Tierni’s mom, Capt. Bevino, back in West Virginia where she informed her mother of her dire circumstances and the information they had been given by the airport authorities.
“Mom,” she said. “You have to help me get out of here. I won’t be able to make it much longer,” she explained, distraught with emotion.
Bevino, in tears as well, felt the flood of emotions that is every mother’s worst fear–that her daughter was in danger and she couldn’t be there to help.
In the morning, Bevino, in full panic mode, contacted the command post at the 130th Airlift Wing to inform them of the situation that was ensuing and to see if they knew of any resources from the Air National Guard heading to the island for relief efforts.
“I was grasping at straws, basically,” she explained.
The 130th command post then relayed this information to an individual in the Air National Guard Crisis Action Team who burst into action, setting in motion a rescue mission for the 106th Rescue Wing from the New York Air National Guard.
While this was taking place stateside, day was breaking in St. Maarten where Corey and Tierni had only a half bottle of water and one orange between them. The hotel is rationing food and there were no shelters in sight. They ventured back out to call Bevino and discovered what the Clendenin’s describe as “chaos” in the streets.
“It was so frustrating,” they said. “There was no information coming from anyone. We saw one St. Maarten police officer who was unable to give us details about anything. The military forces guarding the airport only said to stay back in broken English when approached. We had nowhere to turn and no way to get information.”
In a matter of hours, word had traveled up the chain within the ANG and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and back down to Bevino to let her know that a mission was being organized to get her family out of the area and into medical care.
At 6 p.m. Eastern, Bevino received a call that the plane was in the air heading to pick up her daughter.
“For the Guard to do that for me…for my daughter, is amazing. I’m so grateful,” she said.
When Tierni was able to call back out to her mother Friday evening, she was told, “go back to your hotel and don’t move.”
They did as they were told, not knowing if they’d be able to get another call out or what was going to happen in the coming hours.
On their way back to the hotel, they looked out into the sky and saw a C-130.
“I thought my mind was playing tricks on me,” Tierni recalled. “We didn’t want to get our hopes up so we just went back to our rooms and gathered up our things.”
Shortly thereafter, they heard a knock on their door. It was three Airmen from the 106th RQW. The Airmen confirmed their identities and Tierni’s medical condition and said, “you have 20 seconds to get in the car.”
Off they went. Speeding through the streets to meet the HC-130 parked on the flightline. A medic would be waiting inside the car to ensure Tierni’s blood sugar hadn’t dropped to dangerous levels.
As she’s being treated, tested and loaded onto the plane, the aircrew verified that 20 more seats were open to fly American citizens out of the devastation on the island. They would load the passengers for a direct evacuation flight to Puerto Rico.
“They were in their element,” described Tierni. “They were so calm and professional, which was a stark contrast to what we had witnessed on the island. We were just so thankful and grateful.”
As the cargo door closed, the ANG medic from the 106th RQW, Senior Airman Dave Mathes had treated Tierni and then began the task of ensuring all the people on the flight were stable. The couple would later learn, after speaking with the pilot of the C-130, that he had specifically volunteered to fly this mission because of his experience in the civilian sector as an airline pilot. He had flown into St. Maarten on numerous occasions and was confident he could land the aircraft by instrument only, without the lighting, control tower and necessary infrastructure needed to operate at a normal airport.
They couple was finally able to make it back to the United States on Wednesday, Sept. 20 after being held over waiting for a flight out of Puerto Rico. The island there suffered some damages from Irma, but none to the extent that St. Maarten had experienced.
Corey, who will soon go off to basic military training and on to become an aircrew flight equipment craftsman, described this experience as both humbling and one that showcases the family aspect of the ANG.
“It’s a brotherhood and sisterhood in the Air National Guard. If they take care of us like this and I’m not even in yet, then I can’t wait to start my journey and do my 20 years,” he said.
He told his mother-in-law, Bevino, “you know when you talk about the ‘Guard family?’ I get it now. I understand.”
“It’s put a new perspective on my life and what the Guard is and does for people,” Tierni said. “We were all so lucky. They take care of their own and everyone else–all the other American citizens who were in need. We’re forever grateful for that.”
Bevino reiterated that this mission and the Guardsmen who served on that flight saved her daughter’s life and forever changed her family.
“It wasn’t just a little thing,” she said. “They [the members of the 106th RQW] changed my family’s life.”
The Clendenin family was able to reunite on Sept. 17, 2017, with Capt. Bevino for her promotion to the rank of Major, in a ceremony that held special meaning for the three of them.
The family looks forward to continuing to celebrate their new outlook on life and furthering their careers in the ANG. They hope to be able to pay it forward in the future just as those who helped them did.