Sen. Steve Daines, State Dept facilitate last-minute escapes for citizens trapped abroad amid coronavirus pandemic
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Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and his staff have facilitated numerous emergency repatriation flights for U.S. citizens trapped abroad amid the growing coronavirus pandemic -- including a last-minute escape from Africa that highlights the risks for the thousands of Americans still stuck away from home, Fox News has learned.
The pandemic has infected more than 400,000 people around the world and killed over 20,000. International lockdowns have led stranded travelers to reach out to lawmakers to cut through bureaucratic red tape, often with just minutes to spare.
Pastor Mark Arbaugh, who had been stuck in Lima, Peru, told Fox News early Friday morning that he was one of those fortunate escapees in large part because of his hometown senator.
"Senator Daines' office was very helpful to us," Arbaugh said in a text message to Fox News while onboard his red-eye repatriation flight into Washington, D.C. He was traveling with several Montana Tech students.
"Wally [Hsueh], from his office, has been putting in some long hours. Wally worked hard at making sure that my group of 4 and our new friends that were stranded from Atlanta in the same hotel with us got on the same manifest," Arbaugh added.
Arbaugh said he had never met Daines or anyone in his office before, but worked closely with them during the ordeal. As for the situation in Peru, Arbaugh observed that "a lot of people are gonna have a tough time getting out" now that the national quarantine there has been extended to April 12. But, Arbaugh said, he was looking forward to returning to the country when the situation stabilizes.
Separately, U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates John Rakolta was recorded Friday debriefing five Montanan evacuees at Abu Dhabi Airport ahead of their repatriation flight to the U.S. -- saying it was "no easy task to move from one airport to another without a visa," and that Daines, as well as foreign government officials and embassy workers, had "moved mountains" to get them back home amid "very trying times."
"I'm happy you're all able to get home; I know it's been at trying and stressful time," the ambassador said. "I got my first phone call about three days ago from the senator from Montana [Daines], who called and said there were five young men stuck in the airport, didn't have food or water, and had their passports confiscated. And everyone was really worried. So the embassy was able to marshal some resources very quickly."
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Meanwhile, Isaac Sturgeon, 31, told Fox News that his return to the U.S. on Saturday night from Morocco came as military vehicles were preparing to enforce a strict curfew and shut down international travel indefinitely because of the virus.
"I just wanted to be back on American soil," Sturgeon told Fox News, who was traveling for skydiving instruction. "I registered with the embassy ... There was a lot of silence for a couple days; I don't think they were use to this kind of high volume of phone calls and people at the gates."
That's when Sturgeon said his father "decided to try to get a hold of Steve Daines directly." Afterward, Sturgeon said, things moved quickly.
Daines' office contacted the State Department to charter a flight for Americans when commercial flights were canceled. Once that was approved, Daines made the request to reserve a seat for Isaac.
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"I'm sure all the pressure helped a lot," Sturgeon said, referring to the senator's outreach.
Ahead of the flight, the U.S. embassy "emailed me and said get to the airport between 12:30 to 5:30, flights were leaving; go to front counter and show them your passport and they'll assign you a seat on one of those airplanes," Sturgeon said.
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At the airport, Strugeon said tents had been set up by the U.S. embassy to help travelers who needed to sleep at the airport so they didn't miss a flight. Strugeon said once he landed, his temperature was taken and he had forms to fill out concerning his possible exposure to coronavirus.
Strugeon received what he called "wonderful" help not only from Daines and his staff -- "Liz [Dellwo] was great," and Daines himself was "kind and humble," he said -- but also from British Airways, who flew him from Marrakesh to London.
"I commend them," Sturgeon said of the British Airways crew. "Excellent spirit, people and staff on the airplane. There were about 150 Americans on the plane. The airline staff said they didn't know they were coming to get us until 5 a.m. that morning. Great spirit, complimentary snacks." He added that he hasn't yet even had to pay for the flight.
For those still stuck abroad, Strugeon had some advice: "You've got to get on the horn, talk to people, be sociable to find out what the word is."
"Especially in a foreign country you have to take matters into your own hands, be hyperproductive and find out what's going on," he continued. "You have to care for your own life in a crisis; even in America you have to have common sense -- not everyone can help you. The government can't always be there for just you -- - you're not as special as you think. There's 350 million Americans our government has to take care of."
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At the same time, he said he benefited tremendously throughout the ordeal by linking up with another American from Colorado and joining a Facebook group full of other U.S. citizens in Africa.
In an Instagram post, Strugeon sounded a celebratory note in mid-air: "After an Evac flight out of North Africa 48 hours before boder closings, ...... im Home. Thanks to Senator Daines and staff member Liz, my Family, Facebook Groups, and amazingly warm hearted British Airline folks who didnt even know they were coming to get us until 5a.m. that morning! Hundreds of Americans have Been able to come home. Last but not least, Thank you President TRUMP for keeping your collected self steadfast among pathetic criticism and puppet media! I LOVE AMERICA....STAND FAST."
Other Montanans who have worked with Daines' office to secure release include Dale Brevik, who was stranded on an expedition cruise ship after it was denied disembarking in Argentina, as well as Matt Vincent and his family, who had been in Ecuador.
Daines' office is additionally working to secure the release of other Americans abroad, including Necia Erickson in Cusco, Peru, and a slew of students in Huanchaco, Peru.
“I’m so glad to hear that Pastor Mark and the Montana Tech students will be returning to Montana today and I wish them safe travels as they make it home," Daines told Fox News. He added that he was happy to have "helped Isaac return to the U.S. from being stuck abroad during this time."
"I wish Isaac and his family well, and look forward to hearing about their reunion. Welcome home, Isaac!” Daines said. "I continue to work around the clock to bring other Montanans home stuck abroad.”
Peru has posed numerous high-profile challenges for Americans abroad. In one extreme case, a 33-year-old American woman running out of her life-saving medication to treat her auto-immune disease finally boarded a flight home Wednesday after being stuck in Peru for about 10 days, but hundreds of other U.S. citizens remained stranded after the South American nation closed its borders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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“I could not be happier,” Anna, who requested that her last name not be made public due to privacy concerns related to her medical condition, said after getting on the plane in Cusco.
Fox News' Andrew O'Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.