TAMPA — Nelson Ryman's wife got the first hug, a lingering embrace that lifted three days of worry about the missionary who arrived in Haiti just hours before a cataclysmic earthquake hit.
"I'm glad to be back," said Ryman, 70. "Long day."
As hundreds of people begged for evacuation Friday, Ryman arrived at Tampa International Airport wearing a backpack and a weary grin. His journey home began a day earlier when he hitched a ride on a U.N. vehicle to the Port-au-Prince airport, and included stops in Puerto Rico, Homestead Air Force Base and Miami.
"I'm 10 years older than when I left," he said.
The Zephyrhills man's trip to Haiti commenced as many had over the past decade. He arrived in Port-au-Prince at noon Tuesday bearing clothing and supplies.
Ryman, who spent his career in the manufactured homes industry, said he funds the educations of dozens of schoolchildren and helps people in villages about 20 miles outside the city pay for rent and medical needs.
On his way to the village of Cabaret, he stopped at his regular grocery store to pick up some eggs, sliced ham and bread. One Queen's Supermarket owner gave him a discount card for 10 percent off his next purchase.
His eyes watered as he fingered the card Friday. Within hours of his visit, the store was flattened, its owners killed.
Ryman was chatting with a friend at the inn where he stayed when the walls started shaking. He had never experienced an earthquake before but said he knew what was happening.
"Run!" he yelled. "Earthquake!"
They escaped from the second-floor room down a rickety spiral staircase. Outside, havoc reigned.
Strong aftershocks kept him up most of that first night. The second night, he slept in the hotel's empty pool, fearing the building itself was no longer safe. In a couple of quick calls to his wife, Ryman said he had little water, no food or shelter and was short on heart medication.
He saw dead bodies and devastation on his ride back to the Port-au-Prince airport. He knew he would be lucky to leave.
"Bad down there, Dad?" asked his son, Kevin Ryman.
"Oh," his father said, "it's terrible."
Meanwhile, the Rev. Joseph Myrthil of St. Petersburg, who runs a mission in Leogane, about 40 miles outside Port-au-Prince, received news that 35 residents died. There are also injuries, he said, but all 140 children at St. Francis School — supported by St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg — have survived. The school and church buildings, though, have been destroyed, as well as most of the houses around. Myrthil said the 400 to 500 residents have headed farther up the mountain. They have water, because there is a river nearby, but no food or medicine. Myrthil said he hopes to travel to Haiti soon, but American Airlines has said its flights are booked through next week. He is yet to learn the fate of his two brothers in Port-au-Prince.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or 813) 226-3337.