Eric David Shargel was alone. The 48-year-old U.S. citizen and Dominica resident had just signed over guardianship of his 3-year-old son, Elijah, to a former teacher at Hunters College in New York so the boy could make it safely to the United States. He hadn’t spoken to his other son, 14-year-old Naya, since September 16th. The following day, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Dominica, devastating the island and severing all forms of communication. Shargel suspected that Naya was stranded on the other side of the island, and he was not going to leave without him.
“Naya had gone to stay with his mother on the other side of the island a few weeks before the storm,” said Shargel. “The last time I spoke to Naya was the Saturday before the storm hit.” He was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, and lived in Potomac, Maryland, for many years. His first son, David, is now 24 years old and studies media and politics at Hunters College.
“David is planning to take off time from school to take care of Elijah once the teacher brings him to New York.” said Shargel. “I was lucky enough to have my oldest son’s former teacher here to be able to take Elijah to the U.S. for me. I trust that his teacher will get my baby boy to David Jr. safely.”
When Shargel arrived at the U.S. Department of State evacuation control center, staffed by Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands (JTF-LI) personnel, he drew up a map of where Naya was on the island in hopes that the search-and-rescue (SAR) teams could go out to find him. Three days went by with no sign of Naya.
“As I stayed at the evacuation center for three days, the service members were such an amazing help to keep my hopes high and spirits up,” said Shargel. “I was able to vent to the U.S. forces about my worries and concerns and they helped the time pass and kept my mind off my worries.”
Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands
Service members with JTF-LI have been assisting with the Department of State-led voluntary evacuation of U.S. citizens since September 22nd from Douglas-Charles Airport in Dominica. Other members of the task force are operating out of Martinique and Guadeloupe as they coordinate with the U.S. Agency for International Development to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the islands of St. Martin and Dominica.
The task force is a U.S. military unit composed of marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, and represents U.S. Southern Command’s primary response to hurricanes Irma and Maria. “Each time a helicopter came back to the evacuation center,” said Shargel. “I was filled with hope that my boy was on each and every helicopter that landed.”
Beating the odds
Fortunately, Hurricane Maria did not win this fight. On September 26th, Naya stepped off a U.S. helicopter at the airport, escorted by search-and-rescue team members. When he saw his son, he ran up to him and wrapped his arms around him with tears of happiness and relief in his eyes.
“It felt like I could finally breathe again when I saw my boy walking toward me,” said Shargel. “I had a fatherly intuition that the SAR team had my son in this particular helicopter and had finally found him.” The task force safely evacuated Eric and Naya to the island of Martinique. They are now on their way to reuniting with their family in the United States.
“I cannot begin to explain how thankful I am to the U.S. service members for all their help,” said Shargel. “Many blessings to everyone that has helped!”
JTF-LI has evacuated over 170 people who were stranded on Dominica since September 22nd. Some of these people had spent days without food and water, and others were hurt and in need of medical attention. The task force provided food, water, and medical help to evacuees, as well as transport off the island.
Just like Naya, many other U.S. citizens were rescued after many hours and long days of searching. “As soon as I heard the helicopter,” said Naya, “I knew it was coming for me.”