SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- When my crew and I woke up Thursday morning in San Juan, after Hurricane Irma had slammed Puerto Rico, the monster storm's fury was evident everywhere: Hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of downed trees were scattered all over the city. And a majority of the island's population, more than a million residents, were without power.
Around 11 a.m., we arrived at a private airport in San Juan in an attempt to get on one of the Coast Guard's initial flyovers of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
At the airport, I began speaking with an officer who pointed to two young women he had just rescued from St Thomas. One of them, Canadian college student Alex Demoor, 22 -- badly bloodied and confused -- was being put on a stretcher.
Alex's friend, Idaho native and college student Mattie Gortat, 22, was close to tears and looked traumatized. Mattie told me that Alex had fallen and hit her head around 6 p.m. the night before, but getting to the nearby hospital proved impossible: Let alone driving conditions, they were told that the hospital had been destroyed.
I exchanged numbers with Mattie as she and Alex got into the ambulance, as I planned to follow-up with them. Mattie called me an hour later, and it sounded like she was crying. They were at the hospital but had not yet seen a doctor and they were having trouble communicating with the Spanish-speaking hospital staff. She wanted to know if my crew and I could help. I said we're on our way.
We arrived at the hospital, San Juan's Centro Medico, to discover a chaotic scene. The hospital was surrounded by countless downed trees and branches. The staff was so overwhelmed by power outages and injured patients, they had blocked off all the entrances to the emergency room and were refusing to allow in visitors. We watched dozens of people try to convince the security guard to allow them in to see their injured loved ones. The guard refused. We were also denied entry, but after a while, we managed to convince the guard that Alex and Mattie needed our help.
Once inside, Mattie told us they had left St. Thomas with just one pair of flip flops between them and a phone that was now low on power. Nothing else. We lent her a spare phone and charger and the girls called their families.
My Spanish-speaking producer Joshua Hoyos began acting as their translator. A doctor finally came, saying he would do CT scans of Alex's head. While we were waiting, the girls told us their terrifying story of riding out the storm in a private house. During the worst of the hurricane Wednesday afternoon, when the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced a peak wind gust of 131 mph, they said they got into a shower and covered themselves with a mattress.
It was scary, Mattie told me. She said the wind felt like the house was "breathing." All sorts of objects were flying around and hitting the walls, and even though the windows had been boarded up, some of those coverings flew off.
I asked Mattie if they thought they may die. "We cried here and there," she told me. "We just didn’t know if the roof was going to come off at any moment." Chimed in Alex, "We were praying."
When the worst of Irma was over, Mattie and Alex went outdoors to find complete destruction. All the homes in the surrounding area were destroyed, roofs had been ripped off, cars flipped over, downed power lines and trees were strewn everywhere, and animals were roaming the streets.
They showed my crew and I photos and videos they'd taken of the destruction. But they say around 6 p.m., Alex fell, smacking her head and face on the ground. She was in and out of consciousness. They got lucky because an ambulance happened to be on their side of the island, but the EMT couldn't take them to the hospital because it had been destroyed. Instead, they said he set them up at a restaurant on an air mattress and stayed with them overnight, until the U.S. Coast Guard arrived.
Just as we were about to leave Mattie and Alex, Centro Medico's back-up power supply failed, plunging the ER into darkness (photo below), triggering alarms on life-saving machines. Their terrifying ride was not over yet. We left them with that phone and charger, and told them to stay in touch with us. Last we heard Alex finally got her scans and the Canadian Consulate had dispatched its honorary consul to be by her side.