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First Planeload of Tourists from the Hurricane-ravaged
Yucatan Peninsula Arrived Tuesday Night in Denver
By Kelly Yamanouchi and Robert Sanchez 
Denver Post Staff Writers 

Frontier's first planeload of tourists from the hurricane-ravaged Yucatan Peninsula touched down Tuesday night in Denver, delivering a teary-eyed but smiling payload. 

"The whole plane shook when we took off because everyone started cheering and clapping," said Devyn Gilstrap, 13, who had traveled to Cancun, Mexico, with her mother, Robyn, and 9-year-old sister, Connie. The Colorado Springs trio made the trip to cheer up after the girls' father, Wayne, was sent to Iraq earlier this month. 

"I never want to go through that again," the teenager said. "I'm so glad to be home." 

The evacuees arrived Tuesday evening from the airport in the town of Merida. More than 250 passengers had to make their way from Cancun - where the airport was closed - over flooded roads to Merida. 

A second flight was to arrive sometime around midnight, an airline spokesman said. 

Merida was the closest airport Frontier could fly into, but the airline was not able to arrange ground transportation from Cancun. So some passengers hitchhiked, while others took one of the 40-plus chartered buses that made the 10-hour trip. Ordinarily the trip takes only four hours. 

Passengers on Tuesday evening's Frontier flight said they fled the ruins of Hurricane Wilma on Monday after spending several sleepless days in water-soaked shelters. Those who took charters were given only 10 minutes to pack their belongings before heading out. 

Buildings were flattened in the weekend storm. Reptiles swam in the roadways. Military personnel were everywhere, the passengers said. 

"Everybody was in tears - it was horrible," said Barbara Kester, 43, of Aurora, who traveled to Cancun with her extended family. The group, including her two children, slept in an elementary school, ate tuna for nearly every meal and had to find water to flush the school's toilets. 

"The whole place was pretty devastated," said Kester, whose 7-year-old diabetic niece got insulin chilled with ice from a family with a generator. 

Tuesday's flights were the first of several to rescue tourists stranded in Mexico, including about 1,200 Frontier passengers. More flights were planned today, possibly from Cancun. 

Frontier Airlines dispatched two evacuation flights Tuesday, and the first first Airbus 319 left Denver at about 9:30 a.m. for Merida. The plane returned to Denver carrying 132 passengers, about 95 percent of them Frontier ticket holders. The second plane was expected to return with another 132 passengers. 

"We were one of the first people to see the Frontier sign" in Merida, said Vicki Granville, 55, of Denver. "We ran over and started hugging and kissing them." 

Frontier passengers with tickets did not pay for the evacuation flight, airline spokesman Joe Hodas said, while passengers from other airlines did. 
"We're covering our costs, but not much more," Hodas said. 

Frontier flies to Cancún from Denver, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Nashville and St. Louis, in addition to charter flights, but it canceled flights to Cancun on Thursday as the hurricane approached. 

United, which also flies between Denver and Cancun, canceled flights to Cancun through today but had no plans for evacuation flights. 

Dean Winslow, a Copper Mountain resident, returned to Denver on Monday night after taking an evacuation flight from Merida to Houston operated by Continental Airlines. 

Winslow left for Cancun on Oct. 14. On Thursday night, he and his wife went into a hurricane shelter at the Mayan Palace resort with other hotel guests, where they stayed for about 48 hours. They left for Merida once they heard rumors "that there were going to be planes." 

"Probably the scariest moment was when we were loading the buses out of the evacuation shelter, and we were watching the wind still blowing and the rain," Winslow said. 

Winslow and his wife flew to Houston and then back to Denver. 

He said he was impressed with how helpful Continental, the Mayan Palace and the American Embassy were. 

Wilma also caused Frontier to cancel its flights between Denver and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. United canceled most flights between Denver and Fort Lauderdale and Miami, with plans to resume flights today. American canceled flights to Miami, including flights from Denver, and aimed to restart by midmorning today. 

Frontier had already submitted applications to expand flights to Cancun from Chicago and Indianapolis and has no plans to withdraw them, Hodas said. 

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