Local aviator coordinates rescue out of Haiti

A group of Atlanta-based missionaries are happy to be home, but ready to get back to ravaged Haiti to help in the relief.

Friday, a local man coordinated a “rescue” effort to get them out of Haiti.

It was the best course of action, said Graham Huff a member of First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta and one of the 11 missionaries rescued Friday.

“We were draining their resources,” he said.

Thursday morning, David Lee, president and co-founder of Air Share Elite, an aircraft sales and management business based in Atlanta, got a message that a friend needed his help.

Lee’s friend, Huff, and 10 other metro Atlantans were in Haiti as part of a development mission trip sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. They arrived in La Ganove, an island north of Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 8.

They were “relaxing after a day's work” on Tuesday, when they noticed things falling from the shelves. Huff remembers hearing people screaming and running from their homes.

“We heard we were at about 4.3 (magnitude) where we were,” Huff said.

La Ganove’s success and supply depends on Port-au-Prince, Huff said. The Atlanta residents did not want to be in the way of the locals trying to survive.

But the only way in or out was through either Port au Prince, or the "wide spot in the road, sometime used as a landing strip on La Gonave,” Lee said.

The ferry to get them back to Port-au-Prince had been shut down. And flights out of Port-au-Prince were scarce due to the damaged roads and the airport practically shut down.

Huff was able to get a text message to his wife. He told her to call Lee.

Thursday morning, Lee got the message and “fired off an S.O.S message to the owners list of Grand Caravan's in the Southeast.”

Within minutes he got a call from the owners of Grey Air, a small aviation company in Shalimar, Fla., which specializes in special missions.

“The co-owners of the firm, Eli Caisson and Kevin Camelli, called me right away and said, ‘We're in. We're ex Special Ops pilots from the Air Force. We've got a new Grand caravan with lots of seats. When do we go?’” Lee said

Such a flight would normally cost about $25,000, said Lee. Caisson and Camelli never asked for a penny.

Just after sunrise Friday morning, the pilots were landing in La Ganove. Not long later, they were back in the air and headed home, but they had to make a detour to Palm Beach, Fla., for a customs check before getting back home.

“We called the office of Senator Saxby Chambliss...he was most helpful in calling U.S. Customs on our behalf to make sure that these Americans would be expeditiously handled through the Port of Entry,” Lee said.

By 9 p.m. Friday, the plane was landing at Peachtree-DeKalb airport and the missionaries reunited with their families and friends.

And now everyone is looking to do whatever they can to get involved in the relief effort, said Lee and Huff.

“We are looking to do whatever we can,” said Huff. “Once the airspace is re-opened, we will be looking to fly back in and help.”

Since getting home, Lee said he has taken little time to rest. He has been on the phone calling whomever he can to see how he can get back down there to volunteer.

“This was my seventh time in Haiti,” he said. “Port-au-Prince is the heart and brain of Haiti. All of Haiti is affected.”