State Department airlifts SB residents out of Egypt

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Thursday March 24, 2011

South Burlington residents Debbi and John Burton accepted an invitation from friends that landed them in the center of the Egyptian revolution.  Vacationing just six miles from the violent demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January, the couple was thrust into the international human and political drama, testing their fortitude and resolve. 

The Burton’s longtime friends and Shelburne residents Beth Phillips and John Hollenbach, who for the past five years have considered Egypt their home, persuaded Debbi and John to come for a visit.  Grasping at the opportunity, the Burtons, who had never traveled abroad together in their 38 years of marriage, arranged to depart Thursday, January 20 for Cairo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world with 6.8 million people. 

The first days of their vacation went as planned, three nights and four days on a Nile river cruise, admiring the ancient temples and pyramids from Aswan to Luxor.  On Tuesday, January 25, the very day anti-government demonstrations began, the Burtons returned to Cairo by plane, able to bypass the turbulent city center, making their way on to their host’s apartment in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, where they planned to stay for the remainder of their visit.  That evening, they were captivated by CNN news coverage, learning of the dramatic events which were unfolding nearby.

Feeling secure beyond the capital city for the next few days, the couple ventured out Wednesday to shop for souvenirs in Maadi, making a trip into Islamic Cairo, just two miles from Tarir Square, the site of the next day’s largest and most violent demonstrations in the country.  The curious tourists visited sacred mosques and took in a play that evening at Cairo American College, where Beth works as a librarian and John Hollenbach serves as facilities manager. 

“Before I went to bed on Thursday night, I turned on my I Pad to check email and it didn’t work,” said John Burton, a business partner with Network Performance Inc. “That was my fist ‘uh, oh’ moment.  I said, ‘This is not good.’”  He suspected, and would later learn, that the Egyptian government had shut down internet and cell service.

By Friday, January 28, the Burtons, acknowledging the increasing dangers in Cairo,   rearranged their itinerary.  They headed to the desert to behold the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, built in 2560 B.C.

Returning after a remarkable day of site seeing, the couple was unexpectedly thrust into the chaos as they crossed a bridge into Cairo en route to Maadi.  The car was surrounded by demonstrators.  The Egyptian driver of their vehicle simply waved and smiled at the crowd, motoring carefully past the watchful eyes of riot police.  John heard, “peace, peace,” chanted in foreign tongue.

“I was nervous,” said Debbi, a real estate business owner and RE/MAX North Professionals Realtor, witnessing the uprising, “but I was sure we’d get through it.”

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, defiantly gripping to power, imposed a curfew early that evening, causing the widespread eruption of violent protests.  The Maadi police station was overrun in the dark of night.  From the confines of the apartment where they retreated with their friends, the Burtons could hear distant gunfire.  When they awoke Saturday morning, the police, though repressive and corrupt, had deserted their posts, leaving citizens vulnerable.

From the president’s office at Cairo American College, the Burtons were able to get the first word out to concerned family back home in the U.S.   The international call was placed to Debbi’s brother, Chad Jacobson, a South Burlington resident. 

“We’re fine,” conveyed Debbi, concealing the frightening details, unsuspecting of the dangers that still lie ahead.

At nightfall, homeowners worked together to barricade their Maadi apartment block from looters and released prisoners.  Neighborhood men gathered makeshift weapons, ready to react with force. 

“They were pulling out pipes, bats, knives,” said John, “banging the street in warning.” 

Under the glow of the street lamps, men could be seen running indiscriminately.  Shouts were heard in Arabic, gun fire rang out, blasts echoed between the buildings and tanks rumbled.  At 2 a.m., the Burtons woke from a sleepless night to the sound of a car bomb explosion.

Though the Burton’s Delta flight had been suspended days earlier, the weary couple decided they wanted out.  Believing the danger was greater if they stayed, they fled to the airport on Sunday morning with no plan, (leaving their friends behind), taking along minimal supplies:  several oranges, pita bread, yogurt and bottled water.

The airport transportation arranged with a travel agency shuttled them through new military check points.  Military tanks were now patrolling the streets of Cairo, with tensions and death toll rising.  Outside the shelter of the van, the couple spotted blindfolded men, tied to posts with their hands behind their backs, heads down, not knowing if they were dead or alive. 

Egyptian families were among those they encountered at the airport fleeing for their lives.  Thousands of people were seeking airline tickets to any destination outside of the war zone.  Tickets were being raffled to the highest bidders.  After hours of waiting in lines, Debbi was able to secure two, $1,500 tickets, to London on British Airlines, departure for Wednesday morning, three agonizing days away. 

With no passenger planes coming in, the few carriers with scheduled flights out predictably canceled in the hours prior to departure time, stranding more and more travelers.   Conditions were deteriorating; food vendors were bankrupt of provisions.  Although swallowed by the chaos—crying babies, adults shedding tears, people fainting and frenzied—the Burtons remained calm and searched for a survival strategy. 

Hope arrived by word of mouth.  The British Embassy was alerting Americans of a U.S. State Department air lift at 11 a.m. the next day, Monday, January 31.   With a 3 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew in place, the Burtons settled in at the airport for the night, rising early to navigate their way to terminal 4 for the rendezvous. 

With great relief, they were met by a representative of the State Department and apprised of the arrangements to escape the country.  Baggage restrictions forced the Burtons to consolidate luggage and leave behind nonessentials.  Signing a promissory note for an undisclosed amount of money, the pair was handed their paper boarding passes.  “It didn’t matter,” recalled John, “we were ready to go.”

Once on board their flight to Cyprus, Greece, the passengers, including the Burtons rejoiced.

“We were cheering when the stairs were pulled up,” said Debbi.  “Applause broke out.  I’ve never been so grateful to my government.”

Deliberately, the Burton’s friends remain in Maadi, disregarding college and U.S. Government warnings to evacuate.   

Since arriving home to South Burlington on February 2, the Burton’s have had time to recover from the trauma and reflect on their ordeal.  They say it’s the Egyptian people they’ll remember most for their humor, spirit and light-heartedness—despite their circumstances.

“It was a fabulous experience,” John said, adding, “We were smart to get out when we did.”
“We were witnesses to history,” said Debbi, with rising emotion.  “When our grandchildren read about this in the history books years from now, we can tell them Nana and Papa were there.”

SOURCE: Lisa Osbahr, Correspondent