The first thing that caught Michael McDonald’s eye was the woman’s hair — significantly longer than it was when his daughter embarked on her Mormon mission to Puerto Rico in May, but the same tawny brown curls.
“I said: ‘Is that her? Is it really her?’ I couldn’t quite believe it,” Michael said.
In the wake of destruction left by Hurricane Maria, his daughter Erin McDonald had been evacuated Saturday from Puerto Rico, where she was serving a Mormon mission.
Michael and Darlene McDonald, returning to Salt Lake City from Washington, D.C., had hoped there would be a chance their paths would converge as Erin and other missionaries traveled back to Salt Lake City from Puerto Rico, by way of Atlanta.
“I started to put together a picture of the possibility that she might be in Atlanta at the same time we would be,” Michael McDonald said.
When they landed at Gate A26, a flight directly next door at Gate A27 was preparing to board for Salt Lake City. There Erin stood, staring back at her father and stepmother, wondering if that was really them.
“I realize how narrow and slim a chance that is,” Michael said. “I’m incredibly grateful to have that opportunity.”
Erin, along with three other sister missionaries, were heading back to Utah to regroup and disperse to their new assignments. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had chartered a flight to send supplies to the storm-ravaged country — bringing the missionaries back on the return trip.
“We were just so grateful and so fortunate, but I felt so horrible for the parents who don’t have that opportunity,” Darlene said. “As a parent who missed out on hugging your child for a couple of years, it’s just so hard.”
Michael took pictures of the three other missionaries together to text to their parents to let them know “your kids are safe, here they are smiling in Atlanta.”
Two of the missionaries were reassigned to Ogden and the other to Salt Lake City. Erin was routed to San Fernando, Calif.
The missionaries left most of their belongings behind in Puerto Rico and were anxious for updates.
“They were ready to start service for the people of Puerto Rico. Put on the hard hats and the boots and get to work,” Darlene said. “They were more excited about the idea, the thought of helping to rebuild Puerto Rico than they were about evacuating.”
The group had about a half hour together — the missionaries waited until the last possible moment to board the plane. Michael left his daughter with a message he’s relayed often.
“I tell all my kids, whenever they left the house when they were growing up, I’d always give them a kiss and say ‘be smart and be safe,’” Michael said.