Family's cry for help from Guatemala answered by United Airlines rescue flight home to New Zealand

A New York-born Kiwi from Kaikoura says it was serendipity and the kind hearts of airline staff that got her and her family home after being stuck in lockdown in Guatemala.

Acupuncturist Piedad Barillas-Bird, who goes by the name Pie, was visiting her home country with her husband Brendan and daughter Allelvia for her sister's wedding.

When she and her family left New Zealand, there were no signs of a possible lockdown and no cases in Guatemala, but within days of arriving the country was put into a strict lockdown.

Family's cry for help from Guatemala answered by United Airlines rescue flight home to New Zealand
Photo credit: Newshub.

"It just so happened that Guatemala's first COVID-19 case was tracked down to one particular flight that had three of my sisters wedding guests on it," Pie told Newshub from her quarantine location. 

She said she knew she was safe compared to many in a similar situation as she was with family and had a place to stay, but she craved the security of being home.

"When the world is on fire, all you want to do is be in your own home," Pie said.

"Mentally and emotionally it is a need. Guatemala is my blood country but New Zealand is my heart country," she said. Pie has been a permanent resident of Aotearoa for more than ten years.

Family's cry for help from Guatemala answered by United Airlines rescue flight home to New Zealand
Photo credit: Newshub.

Four weeks into their two month lockdown, Pie and her family managed to get seats onboard a charter flight for citizens of the United States and their immediate family. It was the last chartered flight planned out of Guatemala.

"We were at the airport waiting to board and they called our names. Everything was fine, they were welcoming us and telling us to go through," she said.

"Then the officials were like, 'no, no, no, hold on, they have New Zealand passports."

Family's cry for help from Guatemala answered by United Airlines rescue flight home to New Zealand
Photo credit: Newshub.

Despite being a US citizen and having been told previously she would be allowed on the flight, Pie and her family were turned away and the aircraft left without them. 

"My heart broke. That was probably the worst feeling ever."

Pie said it was "the New Yorker in her" that made her take the situation into her own hands.  

She sent emails to airlines, MPs, mayors and embassies in Guatemala, the US and New Zealand.

Family's cry for help from Guatemala answered by United Airlines rescue flight home to New Zealand
Photo credit: Newshub.

"I literally threw a virtual energetic net out there for some kind of connection." 

That 'virtual net' reached the inbox of an employee at United Airlines in Chicago named Jonathan Guerin.

He knew of discussions between US and Guatemalan government officials for a United operated repatriation flight out of Guatemala.

"I quickly shot Pie an email letting her know tickets for the flights were about to become available and a few minutes later she replied letting me know that she got the tickets," Guerin said.

"She was beyond ecstatic. It was the highlight of the week for me to hear how happy and relieved she is."

After her previous attempt to leave the country with her family, Pie was still anxious they would be turned away at the gate. 

"Jonathan arranged for an agent in Guatemala to meet us at the airport to make sure we got on the plane," Pie said.

The trip home was a long one and it started early. The family first flew to Houston, where they were met by a welcoming party with signs and balloons.

The welcome they had when arriving at LAX was even bigger and brought Pie to tears.

"Thank you so much. You were the only ones who would fly us out. No one would fly us out," she told members of the United crew.

Family's cry for help from Guatemala answered by United Airlines rescue flight home to New Zealand
Photo credit: Newshub.

Despite Pie and her family being just three of the more than 16,500 people United Airlines has managed to fly home during the COVID-19 crisis, there was one more surprise in store for the family when they boarded their last flight to Auckland.

"They surprised my family by upgrading us. I was floored. It was a very, very kind gesture and one that I will never forget," Pie said.

Pie, Brendan and Allelvia are now in quarantine in Auckland until they are cleared to travel home to Kaikoura.

"We aren't quite home, home, but we are a lot closer, and it feels amazing," Pie said.

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