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A day of happy homecomings at Tampa International Airport

Elisha Bowling, 25, hugs husband Evan Bowling, 24, at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday. Elisha, who is in the Navy, was returning to Tampa after spending seven months stationed in Hawaii.
Published Nov. 25, 2016

Charles Gooch stood eagerly at the entrance to Airside F at Tampa International Airport the day before Thanksgiving.

"Bruh, I'm ready," he announced to nobody in particular. "I'm ready to have my wife home."

Gooch moved to Florida about three months ago to take a job as a leadership coach at IMG Academy in Bradenton. His wife, Jolie Gooch, stayed behind in Los Angeles, where she has a good job as a dental hygienist.

It's the longest they've been apart since Gooch received his new kidney through a swap program, which meant his brother, who was not a match, gave a kidney to a stranger. In turn, an MMA fighter from Pittsburgh gave a kidney to Gooch.

When Jolie Gooch finally arrived, he held her face in his hands and whispered words only she could hear. Then, loud enough for everyone else, he said, "I've got my queen with me."

The embrace was one of countless reunions at the airport Wednesday as people welcomed loved ones to Tampa on one of the busiest travel days of the year. About 550,000 passengers will pass through TIA between Nov. 19 and Nov. 29, only a few hundred more than in 2015, airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps said.

• • •

Many people held signs welcoming grandmas, cousins, friends and boyfriends. Others took a different approach, such as Carolee Soderholm, from Hawaii, who wore reindeer antlers to greet her daughter arriving from Washington, D.C. In her purse, she had a tiny, red top hat for her daughter to put on when she got there.

Nick McElroy was wearing an adult onesie yeti costume when he showed up at the airport to pick up his brother Phil McElroy, who was returning home from Notre Dame University. Phil wasn't surprised by this. After they hugged, Nick shouted, "We're going to the beach, baby."

Katie Halfhill of Port Charlotte was waiting for her boyfriend, Dakota Hill, to arrive from Pensacola and knew it had been exactly 67 days since they'd seen each other.

"I only know because he's really into countdowns. He has an app on his phone counting down the days," said Halfhill, a student at Southeastern University in Lakeland.

After arriving in Tampa, Hill held up his phone. On the screen, his app read, "Today!"

Kuniko Harada of Tampa brought balloons and her toddler son along to await the arrival of her mom and sister from Japan.

"We will do barbecue, because I don't know how to make Thanksgiving dinner," she said.

• • •

Some arrivals were more bittersweet than others.

Ceaira Fudzinski brought her niece and nephew, Brook, 5, and Mason, 6, to the airport with signs to greet "Pop-Pop." That's their grandfather Timothy Fudzinski, who was returning after a week in New York. They all live together in Tampa.

"He's about to have open-heart surgery, but he does a hunting trip every year with his brothers up there," Ceaira Fudzinski said of her father. "This was the last time he's seeing them before his surgery. It's crazy, because heart issues run in our family."

Kelli Wilcoxen and her brother Jason Wilcoxen were waiting for their mother's cousin Janet Monahan and her husband to arrive from Chicago.

"These are the first visitors my mom has had since she was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer," Kelli Wilcoxen said. "I'm so thankful this is happening. When they get together, they laugh and giggle like little kids."

They planned to go out for Thanksgiving dinner so nobody would have to cook.

• • •

For some employees at the airport, it was just another day, and not a particularly busy one.

Richie Camacho, dressed sharply and with a teardrop tattooed on his face, sat stoically on his shoe shine chair with not a customer in sight.

How was business going?

"Slow."

Is he working on Thanksgiving?

"No."

Raiza Torres, who works in an electronics store at the airport is, though.

"Only until 2:25. Then I'm going to my boyfriend's and then my parents' house," she said. "I'm just happy I don't have class. I'm studying forensics. I want to do C.S.I., but I'll take a job anywhere I can get one."

Sam Washington won't be there, though. He worked at the airport for 16 years as a police officer and now mans an information desk as a volunteer.

Asked if he ever gets any unusual questions from travelers, he finished the last bite of a granola bar and leaned forward.

"I'll tell you the best-kept secret in Tampa," he said, pointing toward the "Sikorsky" elevators. "Get on there, and go up to the ninth floor. You can see the whole city of Tampa."

The view, under clear, sunny skies, was beautiful.

Times correspondent Samantha Putterman contributed to this report.

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