NEWPORT BEACH — Not even a hurricane could stop them.
A Navy SEAL's widow and mother-in-law were so determined to make the cross-country trip to Newport Beach in time for his benefit tournament that they drove some 300 miles — from Virginia Beach, Va., to Charlotte, N.C. — as Hurricane Irene churned northward.
Keri Mills of Virginia Beach, and her mother, Cindi Gore of Newport Beach, had to get to the Palisades Tennis Club in time to honor Special Warfare Chief Petty Officer Stephen Matthew "Matt" Mills.
They were told the approaching storm grounded their Saturday morning flight out of Norfolk, Va. — and that it likely wouldn't take off until 2:40 p.m. EDT Sunday. Furthermore, outbound flights from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., had also been scrubbed.
So, overnight Saturday, the two — along with Cash, the Mills' 17-month-old son — drove south to the Charlotte airport. They ignored the warnings about the hazards of venturing out on the Eastern Seaboard roadways after Irene, which was later downgraded to a tropical storm, made landfall.
They faced trees toppling and winds of up to 75 mph, Gore said.
"It was the most reckless thing I've done," she said Sunday. "I've never seen anything like that before in my life. Trees were falling around us."
The three travelers got to the club on Jamboree Road in time for the noontime tournament. They were able to catch an early Sunday flight out of Charlotte, and they landed at John Wayne Airport at 10:30 a.m. Gore, a longtime member of the club, organized the tournament Matt Mills' memory.
The 35-year-old was one of 38 killed in the downing of a military helicopter in Afghanistan on Aug. 6.
Mills and 21 fellow SEALs who died alongside him belonged to SEAL Team 6.
Mills, a Texan, was stateside when Team 6 commandos killed Osama bin Laden in May, Gore said.
Mills, who never spoke about his missions, was sent on his 10th tour of Afghanistan in July, weeks after he and Keri Mills wed in Texas and honeymooned in Jamaica, Gore said.
"I am absolutely overwhelmed that I have this many friends — this is huge," said Gore, her voice cracking as she spoke about the more than 120 club members who had turned out to play in the hot August sun. All proceeds from the event, which also included a bake sale and silent auction, went to Keri and Cash Mills.
Keri Mills, 29, declined an interview request. She buried her husband at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.
But she did address the crowd at the start of the event, which opened with a gun salute by American Legion Post 291 members and a flyover by a World War II-era Navy plane.
"When we found out that my husband was no longer with us, my mom had told me that [the tournament] was coming to fruition, and I by no means thought that it was going to be of this magnitude," Keri Mills said.
"So I made sure that I was going to be here to thank every single one of you for being here and all of your support and being with my family, because I am so far away," she continued. "Every little bit helps."
The blond-haired Cash was nearby, dressed in a dark T-shirt decorated with electric guitars of different colors.
Many of the club's members who came to play as part of doubles teams didn't know Mills.
Samantha Mills (no relation), helped arrange to line the Jamboree Road approaches to the club with American flags 48 hours before the tournament. She also helped arrange for the Exchange Club of Newport Harbor to donate a flagpole atop the club in Mills' honor, along with a memorial plaque that will be housed there.
"It hit close to home … it's all these guys willing to give up their lives for us," she said.
The tournament crowned no winners, but organizers tallied at least $32,000 in donations. They expect even more to trickle in.
As thudding tennis balls punctuated the afternoon calm, inside the club the ground-floor lounge was empty.
But on an easel was a mounted group photo taken on the Mills' wedding day, April 29. In the photo, six men, including Matt Mills, hold Keri Mills in their outstretched arms.
The four men — John W. Fass, 31, left, Jon T. Tumilson, 35, Jason R. Workman, 32, and Mills — dressed in Navy uniforms would die together aboard the doomed chopper, Gore said.