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Stranded in Paris, strangers fell in love

Cynthia Sanders and Michael Heatley met in Paris in 2007 during an airline strike. They married Aug. 1 at Palma Ceia Country Club.

Philip Lloyd Photography

Cynthia Sanders and Michael Heatley met in Paris in 2007 during an airline strike. They married Aug. 1 at Palma Ceia Country Club.

HYDE PARK — Hollywood writers couldn't dream up a sweeter script than Cynthia Sanders and Michael Heatley's romantic rendezvous. The certified public accountant fell for the French-speaking naval architect when an airline strike stranded them in the City of Love for five days. To steal a line from an iconic classic, They'll always have Paris.

The crowd seemed unusually large and restless, Sanders thought upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, even for one of the world's busiest international hubs. After representing Tech Data Corp. on a two-week business trip in October 2007, she was eager to get home to Tampa.

She didn't know the Air France cabin crew had called a strike that day, causing chaos for thousands of travelers.

"I really didn't know what was going on, and I don't speak French," Sanders said. She was so grateful when Michael Heatley nudged her into line ahead of him and translated: All flights were canceled.

Chicago-bound Heatley had been visiting family in France for more than a month. Born in Toulon to an American diplomat-father and French teacher-mother, Heatley has lived in Zaire; Mauritius; Trinidad; Jakarta, Indonesia; Seoul, South Korea; Madison, Wis.; and McLean, Va.

"I had a backpack; she had a briefcase,'' said Heatley, who is 38. He was between jobs. Since graduating from the University of New Orleans at 31, he has designed landing craft for the U.S. Navy in Annapolis and researched and tested high-speed experimental boats for the Office of Naval Research in Honolulu.

Sanders, 45, would learn all that, and more, as they kept each other company in the line inching toward the ticket counter.

One hour. Two hours. Three hours. They passed the entire day in line together.

"We were literally next in line after seven hours when the military announced a bomb threat," Sanders said. "Everyone was ordered to evacuate or be arrested."

Heatley refused to budge, convinced it was a ruse to regain control of the scene. He'd rather be blown up than face the end of the line again, he told her.

The two Americans stayed put. When the all-clear signal came, they were first to learn that no more hotel or food vouchers would be distributed.

"All we got was a telephone number to call every day," Sanders said.

Heatley suggested they share a cab back to the city and go to dinner in Montmartre. Sanders was surprised to hear herself accept, but he was hardly a stranger anymore.

They enjoyed that evening, and all that followed. Heatley played tour guide. They strolled along the Seine, sipped wine atop the Eiffel Tower, toured a champagne vineyard. At a train station, they bought two tickets to a city they had never heard of. "We jumped onboard, then opened the guidebook to see where we were going,'' said Heatley.

They made their daily call to Air France, reluctantly, until the strike resolved.

Back home, Heatley e-mailed her the link to a Web site he created called "Stuck in Paris with Cynthia." She relived the experience every time she clicked on a photo.

Heatley celebrated Christmas in Tampa, meeting her stepfather, Jay, and mother, Sandy Host, her partner in Elizabeth Love interior decorating. He met Sanders' co-workers at the office holiday party. In February 2008, Heatley moved to Houston, where he reviewed boat designs for the American Bureau of Shipping.

On New Year's Eve, Heatley found another romantic locale, a beach in Tobago, and asked his favorite travel companion to be his wife. Friends and family flew from around the globe to their wedding Aug. 1 at Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club.

Who would have thought an airline strike would bring them to marriage?

"The first couple of days, I kept thinking we'd leave tomorrow," said Sanders, who is now Mrs. Heatley. "By Day 3, we weren't in such a hurry."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at or (813) 226-3332.

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Stranded in Paris, strangers fell in love 08/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 14, 2009 9:04am]
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