FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. — As borders close to contain the coronavirus outbreak, Americans are getting stuck abroad.
The state department estimates 50,000 Americans can't get home right now.
That was the case for a Metro East mission group until an unexpected ICE plane showed up for them in Honduras.
Twice a year, the Feed My Sheep ministry in Fairview Heights visits Honduras. Its mission can be boiled down pretty simply.
"Basically, love on the people, in all honesty,” volunteer Pati Church said.
But during the latest trip, the mission became simply getting home.
"The government closed the borders,” director Bob Nelson said.
"No one was allowed out,” Church said. "You could only have two people per vehicle and you could only be going to the pharmacy or the doctor,” she said.
Their group of eight mostly senior citizens felt lucky to at least have a hotel, where they made calls for help and waited several days for a plan.
Then, last Saturday, word came from the embassy to be ready first thing in the morning.
“The state department said we had to be ready to go in a minute’s notice, so we were prepared to exit,” Nelson said.
"There was absolutely no explanation. We knew there would be a plane,” Church said.
Church said her boarding pass was just the letter 'X', written on her hand in Sharpie marker.
"When we got seated, on came the immigration police, our immigration,” she said.
It turns out, the Feed My Sheep volunteers, along with dozens of other Americans, were on an ICE plane that had just returned deported Hondurans.
"Since they were coming back anyway, they realized they could help get some Americans out of there,” Church said.
ICE announced this week its effort to bring Americans home from Central America. So far, it’s brought home 209 Americans on two return deportation flights, a news release said.
"They made us feel comfortable on the flight,” Nelson said. “It was America at its best in a difficult situation.”
"And when we landed, everybody clapped and cheered,” Church said.
Both volunteers talked to 5 On Your Side from their homes, where they're in self-quarantine just to be safe.
"It was like something out of a movie," Church said.
Once the dust settles from their unplanned adventure, they want to go back to Honduras to complete the mission on their next scheduled trip in October.
"We have a commitment to the Honduran people. If there's any way possible, we're going,” Nelson said.
ICE said it will continue to bring back U.S. citizens from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and possibly more countries — during the outbreak.