It was fate, the newlyweds decided.
As Tobi Russeck and Ray Sperbeck signed their marriage license in a St. Thomas courthouse in 2014, one of the assistant attorneys general spotted Sperbeck’s left forearm, full of logos of Philadelphia’s sports teams and its skyline.
Turned out, he was from Philly, too.
Before long, the couple were all but sold on moving to the island. A year later, the couple were living in paradise in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Russeck, 36, reveled in practicing law on the island; Sperbeck, 35, loved his job bartending at a steakhouse on the east end of St. Thomas, near the ferries to nearby St. John. They made friends, locals and transplants alike. They had a beautiful house with views of the ocean. And as if life couldn’t get any sweeter, they were expecting their first child together. Baby Harry was due in November.
Then came Hurricane Irma.
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 5, the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands declared a state of emergency for the oncoming Category 5 storm.
The couple planned to ride it out in their home, but they decided to join six other friends — the Irma 8 they called themselves — and sought shelter in a nearby condo. The complex had a generator and if worse came to worse, at least they’d have power.
By the next afternoon, the wind and rain started. And then the electricity went out.
“It was noises I’d never heard,” said Sperbeck.
The women grabbed their pets and huddled together inside a linen closet in the bathroom.
As the wind howled, one woman clutched her Bible and started to rock back and forth. Russeck focused on calming her down, in part to get her mind off of something she’d read about barometric pressure and premature labor.
The wind shredded the hurricane shutters. And then a window exploded and glass shot across the condo.
The water came next, and it poured in quicker than they could push it out. Next came the sound they realized happens when roofs are peeling off buildings, followed by the crack of the walls of a nearby apartment. When Sperbeck saw people inside trying to scramble to safety, he led them — parents and two children — to a neighbor’s condo, where a man inside let them in.
Hours later, when it felt as if the worst was over, they ventured outside. There was no power, no water. What roads remained were damaged. Downed power lines laced the battered island.
Then, Russeck started to fade.
“She got real pale and then she started having contractions,” Sperbeck said.
Sperbeck left to find help, a man Sperbeck says was an FBI agent.
“I’ve got an 8-month pregnant wife and she’s having contractions,” he pleaded. “I need to get her out of here.”
By the time Sperbeck got back to the condos, a National Guard helicopter was already circling over its parking lot.
Sperbeck ran inside.
“You’re getting off the island,” he told her as he stuffed her clothes into a bag. There was just one hitch.
“You can’t come with me?” Russeck cried.
Sperbeck told her to stay calm,
“I love you,” he said.
Russeck told him she loved him too. “Get my girls out,” she said of their beloved cats.
“That was the last thing she told me,” he said.
Our dear friend Tobi is 8 months pregnant and sat in a closet with Heather and I, and 3 dogs for 5 hours while Irma…
After a pit stop in a rest area in the airport in St. Croix, she was placed on a C-17 cargo plane with other islanders being evacuated.
The plane was headed to Puerto Rico.
At Hima Hospital-San Pablo in Caguas, the staff was able to stop her contractions.
Baby Harry was OK, but now wasn’t a good time to come into the world.
After a week in the hospital, she was stable enough to fly home to Philadelphia — four days before Hurricane Maria would touch down. Her husband flew into Philly that day and they had a reunion at the airport.
This couple's harrowing tale about surviving Hurricane Irma in next column. Meanwhile, they could use a little help. https://t.co/XpWSF1kY5N
— Helen Ubiñas (@NotesFromHeL) October 6, 2017
It’s been a month now since Hurricane Irma destroyed much of their island. The couple are living in the basement of her childhood home in Broomall, their beloved cats nearby along with the few belongings they managed to salvage. There isn’t much.
They don’t plan to go back. Paradise is lost, at least for now.
There are times, Russeck said, under a wall of photos of herself in pigtails, at grade school, graduating from law school, when they are lying on the blow-up bed in the basement that it’s hard not to think: “What would we be doing if we were still on St. Thomas?”
But then they realize how lucky they are, and how much worse it was for so many others. Baby Harry is going to be born any day now, and one day their boy’s favorite bedtime story might be the one about how he got the nickname Hurricane Harry.