A correction has been made to this article to reflect the Larson’s landed in Tel Aviv the same day Hamas attacked Israel.
PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — “We were looking at it as a trip of a lifetime,” said Rita Larson.
Rita and her husband Brian exclusively sat down with 10 On Your Side, while holding on tightly to each other’s hand.
“It was a lot of anticipation, a lot of expectation,” said Brian Larson.
For a year, the Larsons from Chesapeake planned to go to Israel for a church mission trip. They are members of Relate Church in Suffolk.
On Friday, October 6, 2023, the Larsons boarded a plan to head to Israel. They were among a group of 12 from the church to leave.
On Saturday, October 7, 2023, the Larsons’ flight made it to the airport in Tel Aviv.
“We just landed in Israel like ‘cool.’ You know, we’re in Israel, and then [we] turn on the phones,” Rita said.
“I overheard somebody like, ‘hey, check the news. So I just went straight to X and saw what’s going on,” Brian said.
He said within 15 minutes of landing, before getting off the plane, they learned of the chaos happening within the country.
“That’s when they announced they’re going to war. So I was quite like ‘whoa.’ We were quite surprised,” Brian said.
The couple landed in Tel-Aviv, the same day, a Palestinian Militant group, bombed an Israeli music festival. Hundreds were killed at the event. The attack sparked the war, fueled by decades of tension between Israel and Palestine.
Rita said the group flew on a Delta Airline flight. She wondered if the flight crew could have diverted the plane or told passengers what happening.
The Larsons said they tried to find a flight home but every flight was canceled. So they left the airport and continued with their itinerary to Jerusalem.
“It was interesting on the way to the hotel. Off to our left was this big, huge black plume of smoke,” said Brian.
The Larsons said they felt safe in Jerusalem but they witnessed missile strikes that were happening less than an hour away.
“My heart stopped beating for a couple of seconds; it was overwhelming. You could actually feel it. You could feel the vibrations. You knew it was not thunder because of that,” Rita said.
“That was explosions going off that were probably 20/30 miles away. But it was so loud coming over the temple you could just, you know, just like the goosebumps, you could still just like holy cow. And then a couple of minutes later, the sirens went off,” Brian said.
At one point the Larsons had to take shelter in Zechariah’s Tomb.
Zechariah’s Tomb is a historical religious monument dating back to the Middle Ages.
On day 4, in Israel, the couple continued to try to get help to leave the country from whoever they could, including 10 On Your Side.
“We know God’s got us in the palm of his hands, but at the same time we wanna get out of here before things get any worse,” said Rita in a video chat interview while she was still in Israel.
Within an hour of airing their plea for help, a WAVY viewer who goes by James called the station.
“My wife and I got up that morning because my son (who) is not quite two woke us up and it was about 5 (am). And if it were not for him, we wouldn’t have seen the story that you were reporting on,” he said. “I told my wife, I said, I think we can we can do something about this.”
James is former Army and former global response Staff for the CIA. He now works for American Kinetix. The organization has trained crews across the globe that extract people from hostile areas.
James asked us not to show his full face or use a last name for safety and security reasons.
He said American Kinetix has worked with government agencies. The organization is Christian-based and has a program called I68. It’s based off the bible chapter of Isiah. He said through the program the organization preps faith-based organizations for when they do charity work in hostile areas.
“We provide training to missionaries and people going long term or short term overseas, we teach them basic emergency medicine, how to stop the bleed in the event. We cover, how to know if you’re being followed, surveillance detection type things, how to drive a car, and then we even get into on the other end of it if you are in an extreme situation. You have to pick up a gun. How do you do that?” said James.
They also help groups escape, and the Larsons were one of the latest they helped.
“They [the Larsons] did their due diligence on us to you know. They, they asked me, “how do we know that you’re not a bad guy?” James said.
By day 6, the group had their bags packed to go.
They were escorted by an American Kinetix multi-lingual extractor who goes by “Walker.”
“He’s probably 6’3″, former US Army sniper. He’s an IDF guy,” said James. “He drove the route. During the times that we had planned for them to drive, he did it the day before so we would know what the traffic patterns looked like. He drove multiple routes and in the event one was blocked, we would have a backup plan. He inspected their vehicles to make sure that they were roadworthy.”
They also had backup plans.
“We had air, we had land, and we had sea, and then we had a safe house as an option. So if all three plans fell through, then we were going to push them to a safe house and just ride the storm out until we could get them out later,” James said.
The Larsons said they contacted the U.S. government for help. They received an email saying the U.S. would help them get to the safest location, but it would cost them.
In order for the U.S. to help they would have to sign a promissory note.
“Our government said, okay, we’re gonna fly you out, but you’re gonna have to pay for it. And the flights are run by contractors, and those contractor flights can be extremely expensive. So we’ve seen this gap and we thought we’re gonna fix this,” James said.
In a statement, Senator Mark Warner, said:
“My staff has been working closely with the State Department to do everything we can to get Virginians to safety. I’m heartened to know that those who contacted my office for assistance leaving Israel and the West Bank have successfully left.”Sen. Mark Warner
Warner’s staff said a promissory note is a part of the law.
“In emergency situations when the government has to charter a flight to get Americans to safety, the State Department does ask individuals to sign a promissory note saying they will pay back the government for their portion of the flight. This is required by law, and it’s my understanding that this was the case for Americans in Israel, but I defer to the State Department on any further details about that.”The office of Sen.Warner
Fortunately, American Kinetix got the missionaries out for free.
The Larsons did a video interview with 10 On Your Side a day before they were scheduled to leave.
“100% grabbing those kids and grandkids and hugging them and kissing on him until they get off on me,” said Rita.
The couple has six children and 10 grandchildren.
On Saturday, October 10, 2023, the Larsons were scheduled to land at Norfolk International Airport around 10 p.m.
Their kids, and grandchildren, along with members of their church, waited with signs and balloons.
When the Larsons landed they were embraced with several hugs.
“It was overwhelming. That was a very happy time,” said Rita.
“It was wonderful to see the kids,” Brian said.
It’s a moment they will never take for granted.
Brian, who is a baker, is now using his talent to raise money for American Kinetix. He has a food truck called “Mr. Yummy Buns” where he sells cinnamon rolls.
The Larsons say they’ll forever think about the lives impacted by the war.
“I mean, it was really heartbreaking how many people were in fear and how many people we came across that had somebody that they had dramatically affected by what went on,” Brian said.
When they pray they say they ask for this: “Peace, for healing and for hearts to change. Hearts need to turn for this to really get fixed,” Rita said.
The couple went to Jersulsamen to work with the non-profit group called the, Domari Society of Gypies in Jerusalem. Rita said they were able to do street ministry while they were there. The couple said when the things settle down in the country, they would like to go back.