Couple Who Put Marriage On Hold To Help After Hurricane Irma Gets Dream Wedding

"Eleven months ago, we couldn’t have imagined that a wedding so perfect would ever be possible..."

Couple Who Put Marriage On Hold To Help After Hurricane Irma Gets Dream Wedding

In 2011, Lauren Saia and Marty Bruckner met while living in St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands. Seven years later, the couple knew they wanted to get married where their love story began and set the date for May 12, 2018. 

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But on September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, turning the life they hoped to begin together upside down.

A U.S. Virgin Island home damaged from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nikolas Dellios / Shutterstock

That day, Saia was in Massachusetts visiting her parents, while Bruckner stayed behind in St. John. To protect themselves from the Category 5 hurricane, Bruckner, and 16 others including five dogs and children, found shelter in country music star Kenny Chesney's home, built to withstand high winds, in St. John. (Chesney, who was in Nashville at the time, had offered his home to a group of friends and friends of friends.) 

As the storm raged on, Saia and Bruckner communicated as much as they could until the weather became increasingly worse and they lost contact. "The last text message I got they said the windows had just blown out, and then you don't hear anything so your mind just goes to really dark places," Saia told ABC News. "I wasn't sure when or if I was going to hear from him again, it was scary." 

After the windows blew out, the group rushed down to the laundry room closet — the most secure location in Chesney's home. "Marty, along with a few of the other guys, barricaded a set of double doors with a mattress that they dragged into the laundry room closet," Anne Bequette, a wedding photographer who met Bruckner while sheltering from the storm, told A Plus. "... We could hear the roofs tearing off as water began filling the room. It was the longest and most terrifying six hours of my life, and those guys never stopped trying to keep us safe."

When the storm finally ended, Chesney's home was destroyed, but all 17 people and animals survived, as did the friendships they'd made along the way. "Being through such a horrific near-death experience with the people in that laundry room forever bonded us all," Bequette said. "Many of us began working together for Kenny Chesney's Love for Love City Foundation immediately following the storms." 

Once Saia flew back home to St. John and reunited with Bruckner, she joined the group in their relief efforts. They all spent long days in the hot sun, as all the trees were stripped by the 225 mph winds and could no longer provide shade. "Working side by side helping to clear roads of fallen trees, debris, fallen power lines, and more, really bonded us even further," she explained. Because there was no power, cell service, or wi-fi for weeks, the group "got to know each other in an accelerated way," according to Bequette, and even nicknamed themselves the "chainsaw crew." 

While Bruckner and Saia focused on their relief work and tried to reestablish their livelihoods, their wedding became an afterthought.

Bequette, however, didn't forget. Instead, the wedding photographer sought out help from industry friends Lauren Grech and Teal Nicholson, partners of New York-based LLG Events. "I told them their story, how the hurricanes wiped out our tourism, which is what sustained both of their jobs," Bequette said. Saia worked at Caneel Bay Resort, which was decimated in the storm and still remains closed, while Bruckner was a charter boat captain. 

"My parents raised me in a way that helping others is always a priority," she added.  "... I knew that their dream wedding plans had suffered due to the storms, and any time they were asked when their wedding was… you could see in their eyes the uncertainty and stress of even thinking about how and when it could now happen."  

Mere weeks after Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, Bequette took engagement photos of the couple amid the wreckage. Meant to symbolize beauty among the ruins, the photos quickly went viral. They also reminded the world to remember those in the U.S. Virgin Islands impacted by the storm.

Given her close connections in the industry, Bequette felt confident she could find vendors that would love the couple's story and be willing to help. 

She was right. As soon as Teal Nicholson learned that the wedding was for the man who helped save Bequette's life, she was immediately onboard. The business partners had already started their own relief efforts, selling artists' paintings and donating all of the proceeds to the Love For Love City Foundation. When the offer to plan Saia and Bruckner's wedding came, it was nothing short of serendipity. "Each year we want to do a pro bono wedding… That was one of our initiatives, and Anne didn't even know that when she contacted us," Nicholson explained. "So it just kind of seemed like it was meant to be."

Bruckner and Saia's wedding rings  Courtesy of Anne Bequette

Without a second thought, they began to plan, first sending out a general email to vendors and places they found through their contacts in the industry or through other vendor referrals. "We never asked for anything for free. We just initiated the conversation by stating that we were doing something for free, but that didn't mean that they had to," Nicholson explained. That initial email then led to multiple conversations with vendors, asking them what they could do, if anything, for the couple's special day. 

Still, they didn't receive many concrete responses until they reached out to Engaged Asheville, a community of wedding vendors in Asheville, N.C. where Bruckner's family lives and the wedding took place. "They sent out a mass email to their entire vendor community… and the next day we got flooded with responses," Nicholson said. "I mean, everybody was asking how they can help out, how they could donate, what they could do for the couple." 

Some of the vendors were even hurricane survivors that had been affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria themselves. "They were really touched, and they really wanted to give back any way that they could," Lauren Grech told A Plus. Soon enough, they had more vendors ready and willing to donate their products and services than they needed. "We didn't want to turn them down, so we were like, 'OK, sure, we can add on this type of service for the event so we can include them,'" Grech explained. For example, Poppy's Handcrafted Popcorn reached out to LLG Events and wanted to help, though she wasn't sure how. She offered to donate a popcorn bar or fill welcome bags with popcorn. "She just said, 'Whatever it is, I will take care of it because I want to help,'" Nicholson recalled. 

Courtesy of Anne Bequette

Other vendors, such as Marta Santamaria and her team at The Ridge, went above and beyond. "We reached out to many different places in Asheville and ... Marta was the first one that was passionate, enthusiastic, and said, 'Yes' — no questions asked," Grech said. "I can't thank her enough because without her, there would've been no wedding." She donated her ceremony space and reception space, as well as letting the couple use anything else she had for free. 

"All of the [venue] staff were so friendly, so easy to work with … They were just so incredibly kind and gracious. Marta and her team deserve so much praise because they did it out of the kindness of their heart," Nicholson added. "They had no connection to Lauren and Marty, so it was literally complete strangers acting in good faith and kindness. That, to me, speaks volumes." 

David Kimmel and his team at David Kimmel Design drove all the way from Texas to transform Santamaria's venue into personalized space, complete with custom hanging floral installations. When the couple saw the floral design, decor, and layout for the first time, they were "blown away," according to Bequette. "The whole design was a surprise to them, as they trusted florist David Kimmel to work his magic," she said. 

Courtesy of Anne Bequette

The week leading up to the wedding was an exercise in Murphy's Law — whatever could go wrong, did. According to the LLG Events team, it rained every single day, lights were canceled, and the power went out. "All of these crazy things out of our control happened, and everyone just came together and made it work," Nicholson said. "I think that was probably the most special aspect ... it was seeing the human spirit come to life," Grech added. "Everybody talks about volunteering and now we got to act on it ... It was amazing to see all these vendors come together." 

"And I'll tell you what, the day of the wedding, it was sunny and beautiful," Nicholson continued. "... I don't know how it happened, but it was meant to be." 

Nearly four months after their intended wedding day, the couple finally tied the knot on Saturday, August 11, surrounded by 85 friends and family members.

Courtesy of Anne Bequette
Photo Credit: Anne Bequette

At the reception, Lauren Grech and her husband/business partner Paul looked around and saw how happy everyone was just to be there, present in this special moment with the couple. "Typically, when you're at a wedding, it's all about the future and building a future together and building this new life," Grech said. "Marty and Lauren have been … rebuilding their lives together since the hurricane. This was almost a celebration — not just of love — but life." 

For Bequette, that celebration culminated in one of her favorite moments when the guests from St. John (that she now calls family) and the happy couple all danced in a circle to Kenny Chesney's new release, Love for Love City. "That song emulates what our island community is all about … Those lyrics gave us chills, and as we danced around linked in arms, we all looked at each other with smiles as we sang along," she said. "It was a 'We made it. We will recover. Let's celebrate!' feeling." 

Courtesy of Anne Bequette

Martina Liana Bridal, a wedding dress designer, donated Saia's dream dress, while Dogwood Designs Bakery made a watercolor-based wedding cake. "We were trying to emulate the storm, and try to make it beautiful to signify how they have overcome it," Grech told ABC News. 

Courtesy of Anne Bequette

To Nicholson, the wedding paralleled the St. John community post-hurricane. "... All of us came together for this one couple, and I think that it parallels the relief efforts post-storm — how all these families, people came together from St. John to help rebuild their island," she explained. "We wanted to help build their dream wedding." 

Courtesy of Anne Bequette

They did just that — and then some. 

"Words cannot express the love and gratitude that Marty & I share for everyone who was a part of our wedding weekend. On Saturday, I married the love of my life surrounded by our closest friends and family," Saia wrote in a Facebook post on August 13. "Traveling to Asheville from Boston, the Virgin Islands and across the country to be with us meant the world to us and we are truly blessed to have each and every one of you in our lives. Eleven months ago, we couldn't have imagined that a wedding so perfect would ever be possible but with the love, support and overwhelming generosity of so many people, we enjoyed an experience we will never forget." 

For Bequette, Nicholson, Grech, and everyone else who helped make the couple's dream wedding a reality, simply being a part of their special day was thanks enough. "We did this because we didn't expect any recognition. We wanted to do this because we were touched by them, their love, their story," Nicholson said. 

"Knowing what we have all been through, to be able to give them a dream wedding day, with the help of all involved, gave me the biggest sense of gratitude and faith that good things can come from bad," Bequette concluded. "That storm changed our lives forever, and looking back, I'm glad it did. We are all stronger for it, and have an entirely different perspective on how precious life — and love — really is."

Courtesy of Anne Bequette

A Plus has reached out to Lauren Saia and Marty Bruckner for comment. 

Cover image via Anne Bequette

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