As Frank Fabi sprinted across the 5K finish line of Disney’s Cross Country Classic on Saturday, helping secure first place for his team, he forgot for a few moments that less than 14 hours earlier he and his 68 teammates were stranded about 983 miles from the starting line.
The 17-year-old senior and the 78 other people traveling with the Ocean City High School boys’ and girls’ cross-country teams — including coaches and teammates’ families — came to Philadelphia on Thursday to head to Orlando, Fla., for Disney’s invitational race at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. It was a trip for which they had spent two years raising funds.
But then their Frontier Airlines flight was canceled due to bad weather and the earliest Frontier could get them to Orlando was Wednesday.
“It was a moment of pure panic,” said Steve Hoffman, assistant coach of the boys’ team, after they arrived back in Philadelphia on Monday night. “With a group that size, you start to wonder how you will ever get that rebooked.”
No airline could get the group to Orlando by Saturday morning, so the group called for their bus and headed for the exit, accepting they would miss the race. But then the coaches were chased down by two Delta Air Lines representatives with good news: Delta would fly a private plane into Philadelphia and charter the team members to their race.
As coaches were working with other airlines, athletes had started tweeting the hashtag #getocxctoDisney and tagging various airlines, including Delta, and even The Ellen Show’s Twitter account, asking for help.
A Delta staff member in its Atlanta headquarters saw the tweets and notified Philadelphia representatives about the issue. Delta operations personnel found an available plane and crew members to fly a McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 from Atlanta to Philadelphia exclusively for the team — Delta does not fly from Philadelphia to Orlando. Frontier officials worked with Delta to transfer the team’s tickets and the group was not charged any additional fees.
“It was so much relief,” said Hoffman. “As low as we were walking out, it was two times as high when they stopped us. The way the kids were handling it was impressive, but they were genuinely very upset.”
The 149-seat plane arrived in Philly from Atlanta around 3:30 a.m. — almost 10 hours after the team arrived at Philadelphia — and the airport reopened a portion of security for the team. Delta provided them with snacks and drinks before they boarded and then they were off, flying nearly first class on a private flight that gave each athlete their own row.
Boy’s head coach Matt Purdue joked that it was his first and last time flying first class. “They were just so kind,” he said after the team arrived back in Philadelphia on Monday night.
The group landed in Orlando around 6 a.m. on Friday and rushed to the hotel to squeeze in three hours of sleep before getting in a meal and racing around 2:30 p.m.
“[Delta] came out of nowhere, and I just said, ‘All right, let’s do this,’ ” said senior athlete Fabi of Margate.
And that’s exactly what the teams did -- seven hours after their plane landed in Orlando, the boy’s varsity and junior varsity teams won first place out of the 78 competing high schools, and the girl’s varsity team took second place and junior varsity fourth.
Ocean City competes in the Disney race every other year, said Purdue, adding that this was one of its best competitions of the season. After Friday’s races, the teams spent Saturday morning training and then enjoyed the afternoon and full day Sunday at the amusement parks.
Senior Luke Kramer agreed that this win was a milestone.
“We don’t go to a lot of invitationals, so it was a good feeling to win in front of a big crowd,” said Kramer, 17, of Ventnor. “We’ve had a pretty good year so far.”
“We know how much these student-athletes put in to prepare for this big race and we were more than happy to be able to carry them to the starting line,” said Drake Castañeda, a Delta spokesperson, who said he also ran cross-country in high school and understands how important races are to students.
This is not the first time Delta has helped out a group of students. In June, Delta used a spare aircraft to fly 41 Oklahoma City fifth graders to Washington, D.C., after their American Airlines flight was canceled last minute.