Waiting for a rescue

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Kerri Sandaine, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·4 min read
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Feb. 21—A group of Idaho gymnasts arrived home in a private plane this week after being stranded in the historic Texas storm.

Reubens resident Karissa St. Onge, the team's travel coach, said their prayers were answered when Gary Peters of Clarkston offered to send a plane to rescue the teenagers and coaches who were faced with limited food and water, no power, and no way to return to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and northern Idaho.

St. Onge, whose son, Jesse, competes on the Coeur d'Alene-based team, traveled to San Antonio with the group last weekend. Most gymnastic events in the Northwest have been curtailed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this was a rare opportunity to take part in a sanctioned meet, she said. The competition at the San Antonio Invitational was tough, but the Avant Coeur Gymnastics team placed third overall in the Level 10 Division.

However, Mother Nature turned out to be their strongest opponent.

The weather took a deadly turn, and the Idaho residents found themselves in a dire situation in unfamiliar territory. Commercial flights were canceled, the power went out, water became scarce, and people were dying on the streets.

"We were out of our element," St. Onge said. "We could see the desperation all around us, from homeless people struggling to survive to bodies covered with plastic. It's an experience we will never forget. Cars were abandoned on the roads, most grocery stores were closed and at one point, the power was off all but one minute an hour."

St. Onge, a special education teacher at Asotin, posted about their circumstances on Facebook, which caught the eye of Peters, a longtime family friend and co-owner of Peters and Keatts Equipment Inc. The business has a private plane and the company pilot, Craig Young, of Post Falls, was willing to drop everything to help.

"When I saw Karissa's post, it really touched me, so I sent her a message," Peters said. "They are dear friends and some of the best people on Earth. Her husband, Lance, worked for us as a subcontractor."

With the weather changing rapidly and more storms in the forecast, it was difficult to find a nearby Texas airport that wasn't closed, Peters said. The Beechcraft King Air 200 headed to El Paso on Tuesday night, and was able to pick up the Idaho travelers in Corpus Christi on Wednesday morning.

"Everytime we do something like this, God just blesses us and allows us to do more," Peters told the Lewiston Tribune on Saturday. "The private aircraft community up here is always willing to help. All of the Turboprop and Turbofan owners are an incredible, generous group, including Larry and Monica Keatts, Brien and Mark DeAtely, Rich and Ryan Rogers, Gale Wilson and Vic Dalosto."

On her Facebook page, St. Onge recapped the week for family and friends, with many thankful posts to Peters and Keatts.

She said many Texans were shocked to see the snow, and the Idaho folks had not packed for freezing temperatures, especially indoors.

"The power continued to diminish until it was down to one minute every hour," St. Onge said. "We bundled everyone in all blankets available in the upstairs bedroom. We began to ration drinking water and determined how much food we had available. As flights continued to cancel, and the temperature dropped, the power completely stopped."

When the thermometer inside their rented house hovered between 28 and 36 degrees, the coaches and parents made the collective decision to move the boys.

After Peters contacted St. Onge, the plan was to head south to Corpus Christi and secure lodging. Along the way, they found one grocery store open, and about 400 people in the parking lot. They purchased two gallons of water and enough food to last a couple of days.

By the time the plane arrived, the gymnasts were more than ready to head home.

St. Onge said the rescue plane provided a firsthand "pay-it-forward" experience for the boys. The pilot kept the kids in good spirits, and the airport crew was hospitable, even though it was a desolate scene with only two other aircraft on the tarmac.

In addition to St. Onge and her son, Jesse, who attends Lewiston High School, the other grateful gymnasts were Jon Malstrom and coach Matt Auerbach, of Post Falls, Ryan Thomas, of Hayden, and Colin Scott and his mother, Dianne Scott, of Spokane.

"It was difficult to hold back tears when Craig walked into the terminal," St. Onge said. "Some very overjoyed young men and parents loaded up to head home. I think it's safe to say, we all have a different and greater level of appreciation for those special people who were in the position to assist us, in a way we couldn't have possibly imagined."

Kerri Sandaine can be contacted at (509) 552-1137 or kerris@lmtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.