Former Pasco resident Erika Tonello spent an anxious day at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, running back and forth to a Chinook helicopter with two her young sons as she carried her infant daughter.
Tonello, 29, and the children were practicing Thursday for the impending evacuation of U.S. citizens from the impoverished country, which in recent weeks has collapsed into anarchy after nearly all Albanians lost money on high-risk investment schemes.
"We saw Albanians with guns outside the embassy fence, shooting up into the air," she said in a telephone interview Monday from her sister's house in New Jersey. "I was hoping it didn't get any worse. I was worried they might start shooting at us."
As the first helicopter lifted off that night with Tonello and her children, she watched tracer fire lance the darkness and worried about the husband she left behind.
Officials first evacuated women and children. The men would wait until Friday.
Richard Tonello, 33, a Tampa native, stayed overnight with friends, watching videos while gunfire and shouting erupted in the streets. A bullet pinged off the outside wall, he said.
Erika grew up in Hudson and graduated from Hudson High School in 1986. Her parents, Henry and Drury McAlarney, still live in Leisure Beach. She attended the University of Alabama. She met Richard in 1991 when both worked at Quail Hollow Elementary School in central Pasco County.
Richard graduated from Tampa Catholic School in 1981 and attended the University of South Florida.
The Tonellos enjoy traveling, so they went to work for International Schools, which has 16 campuses in Europe to educate the children of diplomats and foreign professionals.
They worked for two years in Kiev, Ukraine, before transferring to Tirana in 1995.
At Tirana International School, which had about 45 students, Erika taught elementary school pupils and Richard taught middle school.
They lived in a two-story villa that cost $900 a month, with unreliable power and water supply. They have two sons, Zachary and Nikolai, ages 5 and 2 respectively. Their daughter, Breanna, was born in Rome two weeks before the evacuation.
In the week before the evacuation, the Tonellos sat in front of the TV with an unfolded map of Albania, watching CNN as town after town collapsed into chaos, hoping it wouldn't spread their way.
As uprisings spread to the capital city of Tirana, embassy officials warned U.S. citizens to avoid crowds and stay close to home. On March 10, the Tonellos went to the grocery store to buy milk, juice and food to get them through the crisis.
The next day, they awoke about 3 a.m. to shouting and gunfire from the nearby military college, Richard said.
"We thought people were taking over the town, but it turned out to be people celebrating after graduation," he said.
Last Wednesday, their Dutch and Swedish students and their families were evacuated.
Word came Thursday that U.S. citizens would begin evacuating. They packed what little they could: important papers, a laptop computer, a video camera, some clothes for the children, some silver. They left behind souvenirs, photographs, some toys and bicycles.
Richard dropped off Erika and the children at the embassy compound.
"I was definitely scared and ready to leave with the situation as it was," Erika said. "But we were leaving Richard behind and there was no time for goodbye. That was the hard part. I just wanted to make sure he could see the children, to know he would be able to see the baby again."
The Chinook took them to the USS Nashville in the Adriatic Sea.
The sailors gave the children baseball caps. They were given physicals, fed cake and hot dogs, then bunked in the Marines' section, where Erika dreamed of gunfire.
Friday morning, a Black Stallion helicopter carried them from the Nashville to Brindisi, Italy.
From Brindisi, they rode a bus to Rome and checked into the Sheraton. The embassy had set up a station in the hotel to keep relatives informed about evacuees. Erika had no way of knowing if Richard made it out, but she was able to inform her parents through the embassy that she had escaped.
At 4 a.m. Saturday, there was a knock on the door. It was Richard. She never had a doubt.
"When I saw him, he was smiling," Erika said. "I just opened the door and said, "Thank God.' "
Sunday, they arrived at her sister's home in Manalapan, N.J.
Her father, 70, seemed envious of his daughter's adventure. Henry McAlarney served in the Army after the surrender of Japan and never saw as much action as Erika, he said.
"I saw some mines being blown up and that's about it," he said. "I had faith everything would be all right for her. I was sorry I couldn't be with her. I was missing all the adventure."
Curiously, the Albanian evacuation Thursday came on the fourth anniversary of the no-name storm that destroyed the Tonellos' Hudson house March 13, 1993.
The Tonellos' next teaching assignment begins April 1 at the international school in Kazakhstan, they said.