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All he wanted for Christmas

Air Force Sergeant Robert Requena, center, is overwhelmed with hugs and kisses from his daughter Emma, 4, and wife Malissa.  They are expecting a second child in February.  Requena received a surprise welcome from his family in Atascadero after over a year of service overseas.  Requena experienced weeks of delayed flights in London, Ireland, and Houston to just barely make it home in time for Christmas.
Photo Nick Lucero 12-23-10
Air Force Sergeant Robert Requena, center, is overwhelmed with hugs and kisses from his daughter Emma, 4, and wife Malissa. They are expecting a second child in February. Requena received a surprise welcome from his family in Atascadero after over a year of service overseas. Requena experienced weeks of delayed flights in London, Ireland, and Houston to just barely make it home in time for Christmas. Photo Nick Lucero 12-23-10

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Irish woman who helped Air Force Sgt. Roberto Requena as Elaine Lainey. Her name is Elaine Doyle.

One American serviceman is stranded in European airports for more than 90 snowy hours. Two special ladies in Atascadero — the serviceman’s pregnant fiancee and her 4-year-old daughter — await his return. Close to zero are his chances of catching a flight to the United States before Christmas.

But a thousand Irish Twitter users spread word of his plight in an Internet campaign started by a friend thrice removed. And one Christmas angel, practically a stranger, forgoes several hours of sleep to find him a way home.

How the Irish saved Christmas for Air Force Sgt. Roberto Requena is a convoluted tale of social networking and airline bureaucracy.

But it’s mostly a story about kindness.

At 10:25 p.m. Tuesday Dublin time, 1,000 Twitter fans received a message from Irish comedian Abie Philbin Bowman, who was retweeting the pleas of a friend of a sister of a friend of Requena’s: “Can you save Xmas for a friend, stuck in Dublin airport? Robert’s trying to fly home to his pregnant fiancee. Needs a sofa/bed.”

As a result, a Twitter user approached Requena in the airport and recharged the minutes on his cell phone. It rang with offers — from Irish Times writer Roisin Ingle and others — for a place to lay his head that night.

But he politely refused, intending to wait for the 5 a.m. opening Wednesday at the Continental Airlines counter, which was offering the only flight to the U.S. during a forecast 9 a.m. break in a big storm hitting Great Britain.

Requena’s fiancee, Malissa, said at one point he had called her in tears — intent on getting home but not knowing quite how.

The 9 a.m. Wednesday flight to Newark, N.J., was already overbooked by four people, and his original ticket was issued through a different airline.

Dubliner Elaine Doyle logged onto Twitter just before midnight that evening and found out about Requena’s plight. She called to offer her help.

Having never met him, she called again at 2 a.m. just to talk.

“It’s rubbish sitting on your own in the middle of the night at the airport,” Doyle told The Tribune.

Requena spoke about how he had saved all the vacation days he could to gain a month’s leave from service on Mildenhall Royal Air Force station in England, about his upcoming marriage and about his soon-to-be daughter Emma’s excitement to see him at Christmas.

Doyle “kept me awake in line,” Requena said. “I had a friend.”

And when Continental said it could not help, Doyle took to the phones in an “inescapably complicated” effort to rebook his ticket.

“She had Continental on one arm, me on the other and United on her other leg,” said Requena of Doyle’s insistent calling.

In the end, Requena decided to play “roulette,” as he called it, and booked a flight for Dec. 27 on Continental so he could fly standby for the Dec. 22 flight.

Because many other passengers missed connecting flights to Dublin, thanks to the snowstorm, he got a ticket and flew to Los Angeles.

Driving back from Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, after 113 hours of airport travel, Requena said, “Without Elaine, I don’t think it would have been possible. ... She is an amazing person.”

He will spend Christmas with Emma, and he’ll make it to Malissa’s ultrasound, scheduled for Monday.

“Sometimes, there are shades of gray, but getting someone home for Christmas — that is obviously the right thing to do,” Doyle said.

When asked what role Twitter and social media had to play in this tale, she said, “It’s the medium, but it’s not the content ... the content is people.”

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