A couple from Olympia working in Libya recount their escape from the North African country's political turmoil.

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Ron and Rhonda Servine flew to Libya early in the morning of Feb. 20, revived after a vacation in Italy and ready to get back to their jobs. They’d heard it was safe.

They arrived in Tripoli — their home since July, when they’d moved from Olympia to help build Libya’s infrastructure — to find the protests had turned violent. Their employer, an international company called AECOM, sent them a notice that day to prepare to evacuate.

The Servines gathered their belongings and crammed all they could into two suitcases, two carry-ons and two laptop bags. Most everything they owned was in that home, where they had planned on living for at least two years. They ditched business suits, shoes, a medicine box, North Face sleeping bags — a mistake, it turned out, when they were later stuck on a cold boat for three days — and hoped one day they would be able to return.

That night the couple left their windows cracked open so they could hear the commotion in the streets. After the evening prayers, they listened to the sounds of chanting and gunfire.

The next morning, Feb. 21, the Servines moved to an AECOM compound near the airport, surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire just outside of Tripoli.

“It wasn’t harrowing,” Rhonda Servine said Saturday, recalling the experience that left her imagining gunshots even after she’d made it out of the country. “It was just, we were in a state of alert all the time in case anything changed. We weren’t really a target at that point.”

But what if something changed? That was the question she and her husband pondered in the compound. They paced the grounds and worked out an exit strategy, finding places where they could scale the walls if need be.

Rhonda Servine said AECOM worked around the clock to evacuate its employees. About half of them left on a flight Tuesday.

The couple never ventured to the airport themselves. Rhonda Servine later met a Chinese construction worker who told her he had managed to book a seat on a flight, but the airport was so crowded he couldn’t physically get to his gate.

On Feb. 22, the Servines heard news of a ferry leaving Tripoli, chartered by the U.S. government. Two of AECOM’s executives drove down to the dock, located precariously close to the heart of the protests, to make sure the route was clear. It was, but the company booked employees seats on two different flights that day just in case.

The Servines boarded the ferry later that day, struggling against 50 to 60 mph winds. The ferry’s departure was delayed until Feb. 25 because of high seas, so the couple ended up celebrating Ron Servine’s Feb. 24 birthday on the boat. A teacher on the boat had children make birthday cards for Ron Servine to mark the occasion — but also to distract them from the mounting protests visible from the windows and from the nauseatingly rocking boat.

During the eight-hour journey to Malta, Rhonda Servine said, the ferry was rocking so badly it was dangerous to get up — one woman fell and tore her knee cartilage.

Once in Malta, the couple spent two nights in a hotel unwinding before flying home to Olympia.

Now safe at home, Rhonda Servine said she’s worried about the friends she left back in Libya and hasn’t heard from.

“We worked with some wonderful people, and it was very sad,” she said. “None of us wanted to leave Libya.”

Olivia Bobrowsky: 206-464-3195 or obobrowsky@seattletimes.com