WACO, Texas – For nearly three months, people gathered day and night in a small room at Antioch Community Church, praying and crying for two of their own jailed in Afghanistan after being accused of preaching Christianity.
Their prayers were answered with the release of Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, 24, as well as six other aid workers freed from an Afghan prison, senior pastor Jimmy Seibert said Thursday.
"It's a wonderful thing to be able to see with your own eyes the answer to your prayers," Seibert told congregants. "And Heather and Dana, as well as the other detainees are truly an answer to our prayers."
The Pentagon said the aid workers were taken by helicopter to Pakistan on Wednesday and apparently were in good health. Seibert said Curry and Mercer, both graduates of the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, were at the German embassy there.
The Taliban had agreed to release the workers but left them behind as they fled from Northern Alliance rebels, Bush administration officials said.
Tilden Curry was standing in line at a church supper in Nashville on Wednesday when he heard his daughter was free.
Dayna Curry called her father later and they spoke for about 15 minutes.
"It was almost like a miracle," Tilden Curry said. "It could have gone the other way."
Dayna Curry said opposition forces had driven the Taliban out of an unidentified town and then set the workers free, according to her stepmother, Sue Fuller.
When U.S. helicopters arrived in darkness to pick them up, the group had to set their head coverings on fire to attract the pilot's attention, Fuller said.
Mercer's grandmother Norma Andersen said she was relieved to hear of the rescue.
Andersen said Mercer had sent daily e-mails from the schoolhouse where she taught orphans, writing that she had grown close to many Afghans and lamenting the living conditions under Taliban rule.
"She had a kindred spirit with the Afghan people. They were so destitute. She wanted to help," said Andersen, who lives in Youngstown, N.Y., and was at Walt Disney World on Wednesday to attend a convention with husband Carl.
From his home in Lewiston, N.Y., Mercer's stepfather, Delmer Oddy, said he couldn't talk long because he wanted to keep the phone lines open while he and Mercer's mother, Deborah Oddy, waited on a call from Islamabad.
"This is fantastic," he said. "It's a great night for us."
A service planned for next month in Mercer's hometown of Vienna, Va., has been changed from a prayer vigil for her release to a praise celebration, residents said.
Dayna Curry's mother, Nancy Cassell, and Mercer's father, John Mercer, have spent the past month in Pakistan waiting for the young women's release. They went to Afghanistan after their daughters' arrests, but were moved to Pakistan for their safety after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Seibert said Curry and Mercer would stay in Pakistan for several days for debriefing and counseling, and planned to celebrate Thanksgiving abroad with their families before returning home. He did not know when they would depart for the United States.
"The last three days of this thing is better than any Hollywood movie you've ever seen," said Seibert. "Thanksgiving has come early in Islamabad, Pakistan."
Along with Curry and Mercer were Germans Silke Duerrkopf, George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar and Kati Jelinek; and Australians Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch. They were all employees of the German-based Christian organization Shelter Now International.
Their trial concluded in September, but the Taliban Supreme Court last week indefinitely postponed the legal proceedings. Judges said they feared their anger at the United States over the relentless airstrikes would cloud their ability to make a fair ruling.
Seibert said both women knew the dangers but were drawn to Afghanistan out of their love for the poor.
"To them it was worth risking everything ... in order that people might be helped," Seibert said.