The Incredible Last Chapter of our Escape from Cuba.
They say a photo is worth a 1000 words, and I think this unbelievable photo from my passenger seat aboard Sunwing flight WG200D says it all. What you are looking at is the eye of Hurricane Irma from my view point. The eye is incredibly close to the aircraft and spinning at 362 km/h (225 mph) like a monster. We are flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet in just 14 minutes with all engines at max throttle reaching a speed of (1054 km/h) getting hit by debris and riding a roller coaster of heart-stopping turbulence in our bid to survive. We had no idea if we would even leave the runway with winds over 160 km/h (100 mph) and torrential rains from the bands of the hurricane pounding the ground.
This is the final leg of our evacuation which started from our initial vacation spot of Cayo Coco, Cuba to Varadero on Thursday, September 7th, 2017 involving 50+ busses (with 3 bus crashes en route) and Cuban police escorts over 8-12 hours (luckily it was 8 for us). We were being bused west in the hopes that Irma would turn north. However, at 9pm on Friday, September 8th, 2017, Sunwing made the decision to evacuate the Canadians in Varadero as Irma continued making its way west.
On Saturday, September 9th, 2017 we were supposed to fly from Varadero Airport at 9:25am. We arrived at Varadero Airport at 7am where two Sunwing airplanes were waiting, one headed for Toronto the other for Montreal. Unfortunately Hurricane Irma was too close for further flights to land. As a result, Sunwing flight WG200D destined for Toronto, which started its journey from Toronto at 4am with an all-volunteer staff, was re-routed to Havana along with two other Sunwing planes that would be destined for Montreal. At 9am, all remaining evacuees (500+) who had not made it on one of the two original planes were rushed from Varadero Airport to Havana International Airport chaotically via multiple buses and the Varadero airport was immediately shut down.
We arrived at Havana International Airport at 11am but data communication issues between Varadero airport and Havana airport along with regular intermittent power outages at Havana airport prevented check-in until 3:30pm. Approximately 500+ evacuees waited during those 4.5 hours to check-in in close quarters without any food or water provisions or café availability. The Hurricane continued to grow in ferocity and people were frightened we would be left at the non-prepared closed airport. We had already all missed breakfast due to early morning hotel departures and had disposed of water due to expected boarding at Varadero.
At Havana, boarding for our Toronto flight did not start until 5pm with takeoff at 6pm due to significant organization issues at the airport. Thankfully, the pilots had the expertise to climb out of Irma’s path with only one big heart stopping area of up/down and sideways turbulence thanks to a small break in the hurricane wind gust band. Unfortunately, after all that we had been through the plane ended up having to land at Nashville, Tennessee International Airport at 8pm EST as the crew had hit their 17 hours legal work limit and had to be switched to due safety regulations. We waited 6.5 hours in a closed secured area of the Nashville Airport until 2:30am EST after the new crew had arrived and the plane was finally ready to make its last leg to Toronto. Thankfully, during our time in the Nashville airport we were provided with ample pizza and water.
We finally landed at Toronto, International Airport at 4:52am, closing out our 23 hour journey between four cities: Varadero, Havana, Nashville, and Toronto. Thank you to the Sunwing staff heros of the Sunwing flight WG200D for saving all of us.
I was on the last plane out of Cuba in Hurricane Irma.
The Last Plane out of Cuba. Flying from Varadero and Havana during CAT 5 Hurricane Irma leaving at 6pm.
Video: This video shows the plane’s take off at max throttle with a very steep corkscrew accent, flying through the west side of Hurricane Irma. The eye of Hurricane Irma can be seen at the end of the video to show how close the eye was to the plane.
Unedited raw footage of the last emergency evacuation flight from Havana International Airport, Cuba to Toronto, on September 9th, 6:00pm, fleeing from Category 5 Hurricane Irma (180mph winds, 225mph gusts). Flight WG200D operated by Sunwing.
Our 4 Days of travel running west from Hurricane Irma. We covered half of Cuba with the Hurricane only ever about 2 hours behind us.
7:25am. Only 2 of these flights ever arrived at Varadero to take Canadians home. The check in airport staff got up and left everyone still waiting in line, without saying anything. We were at the front of the check in line and my wife Andrea went to see what was going on, coming back saying we MUST LEAVE NOW, leaving the front of the line and rushing to the front doors of the airport to catch whatever bus existed. At the time we exited the airport we saw only 4 buses and knew we had to grab one. We blindly jumped on a bus to Havana, not knowing what awaited us there, but the eye of the hurricane was only 30 minutes away. Mass chaotic evacuation to Havana Airport of 500+ people.
The bus from Varadero to Havana was anything but a tour ride. Thankfully the Cuban driver of our 9 year old, 456,000km (283,345 miles), Chinese made, 40 passenger bus knew the roads as we traveled as fast as we could in the Hurricane.
Winds over 160 km/h (100 mph), storm wave surges 20-25′ and monster waves 25-50′ high.
The trip was 80% on roads beside the coast and beaches, definitely not the most ideal. Long bridges with 2′ guard rails towering hundreds of feet over gorges, flying debris and falling palm trees hampered our travel. At one point a palm tree fell on the roof of the bus at speed. We stopped, the driver got out, checked the damage and thankfully we were able to keep going.
11am. Over 500 arrive at Havana Airport. It is CLOSED. A few security guards stood at the entrance into the airport keeping everyone out. The line waits over 30 minutes before they let 1/3 of us inside. The evacuation from Varadero to Havana Airport bought us 1h 20m of buffer time. We MUST get aboard the 3 aircraft that are waiting. The hurricane is quickly approaching.
3:00pm – No check in staff, only security personnel in sight. Airport staff have no information on who any of us are. No one has any no airplane tickets, no boarding passes. While the hurricane rages outside the doors, 2/3 of the people are still outside in line. One of the airport staff says they can’t process us until they download a passenger list from Varadero airport (which is closed and is now under the eye of the hurricane). Power goes out a few times. Each time it does, we feel we are all going to get stranded. 3 1/2 hours of waiting, no food, no water, no information.
3:30pm. Without any success at downloading the passenger information from Varadero Airport the staff announces “In 10 minutes we will have a decision”, which we assumed meant a decision if we let you through or you must leave the airport. Thankfully, they decide to let us through, with only a verbal confirmation on destination (Toronto or Montreal) and a passport number they let us in the airport. Our tickets are printed out, baggage checked. However, incorrect information holds up the evacuation process. Tickets are printed out DESTINATION CANCUN. Wrong Aircraft ID number. This becomes a bigger issue later on.
It took 6 hours from arriving at Havana Airport to board the plane. Remember, this is an emergency evacuation flight with a Class 5 Hurricane rampaging outside the airport and a very narrow window to leave, and yet we waited for 6 hours.
After everyone had received their boarding passes and made our way through security, we were waiting 1.5 hours for boarding. During this time two bands of Irma swung in bringing with them absolutely torrential rain and howling winds. During these periods we held our breath, believing that there would be no way out at this point and we’d be stuck weathering the storm in the airport without food and water. Thankfully, the evacuation continued and we were boarding our plan around 5pm.
I wasn’t going to post this photo, but we had no idea what the Havana Airport staff (or Varadero Airport for that matter) were doing. They appeared to not take the evacuation seriously and in fact, spent time dancing, joking around and standing around doing nothing!
In fact, here is what they did do wrong:
- Printed out the wrong destination tickets
- Loaded passengers on the wrong airplanes, mixing up Toronto and Montreal passengers
- Loaded the wrong luggage on the wrong airplanes
- Did not collect the boarding pass of one passenger, meaning we could not depart until that pass was found
- Handed out water in the last 10 minutes of waiting to check-in, only having to dump it at security
- No food was available at Varadero or Havana airports, and passengers were bused out of our resorts well before breakfast was available
- Very poor communication throughout the whole process
They also insisted on loading each of the aircraft waiting separately, luggage first, then passengers via SEPARATE shuttle bus trips to the waiting aircraft that was 50′ away. Loading and boarding as well as fixing the mixed up passengers and luggage took 2.5 hours!
Once on our aircraft, the stewardess said we only had 16 minutes to leave the airport or we couldn’t get to Toronto due to international crew time regulations. We did not leave within 16 minutes; more on that in a bit. Our plane had left Toronto at 4am and it was already 5:46pm with an estimated landing at 9pm in Toronto. They had initially tried to land for us at Varadero Airport early in the morning but were waved off due to dangerous landing conditions and had to fly to Havana Airport where they then had to wait for us. They thought the plan was to rush us on buses to Havana and have the planes leave nearly immedatiely, but 9 hours later they were still there, sitting and waiting on the runway, watching the hurricane come nearer. The Sunwing staff on the three rescue planes in Havana were all volunteers on their days off.
To try to speed up the process to save us, the Sunwing air crews offered their help to Havana Airport to check us in, load baggage and load passengers. They were all experienced in these tasks. Cuban Havana Airport staff refused all requests to help and got into heated arguments as Hurricane Irma intensified. All they could do was sit in the plane and wait.
8pm EST – Unexpected landing in Nashville. As air crews can only work 17 hours (legal work limit) they had to be switched out to due safety regulations. The decision was made to make a stopover in Nashville, but of course Nashville didn’t know early that we were coming and since the plane was marked as destined for Cancun instead of Toronto and the plane had arrived from Cuba, we were in an interesting state of affairs. They scrambled to figure out what to do with us. However, after 45 minutes sitting on the runway, our plane was allowed to pull up to a specific gate to deplane. We were held in a secure holding location for 6.5 hours. The small room holding our flight passengers was able to be doubled in size once they learned who we were and what we just escaped from. Armed guards kept close watch on everyone. After a couple of hours, the Nashville Airport staff provided us with food, water, pop, snacks, chairs, and anything else we needed. In fact, 50 large pizzas were brought in. Thank you to the people of Nashville!
We finally landed at Toronto, International Airport at 4:52am, closing out our 23 hour journey between four cities: Varadero, Havana, Nashville, and Toronto. Thank you to the two sets of Sunwing staff heroes of the Sunwing flight WG200D for saving all of us.
Along the way we met many different types of people. There were those who yelled and screamed at any Sunwing employee including the pilots who rescued us, there were those who were quiet and trembling, there were those who kept partying and drinking beer as the buses raced us across Cuba to safety, there was even one young lawyer who continuously yelled threatening to sue, but ultimately there were those who stayed calm and strong and helped us get through the epic adventure turned odyssey. Without these people we would not have been able to keep such cool heads ourselves. Thank you especially to Charity and Ian, Tyler and Melanie, Roberto and Brigitte, and Shane and Haley. Also a huge thank you to the Cuban people who risked their lives and not getting home themselves to save us from the disaster, including the bus drivers and Sunwing reps. This was no small feat but we are happy to be home.
For your reference, here are images from Ventusky.com showing where Hurricane Irma was over Cayo Coco and Vardero on Saturday, September 9th, 2017.
Irma over Cayo Coco, Saturday, September 9th, 2017 @ 2AM
Irma over Varadero, Saturday, September 9th, 2017 @ 9PM
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