Friday, November 16, 2001

Friends and family members across the country cheered Wednesday night when news broke that Heather Mercer, a 24-year-old Vienna, Va., resident, had been rescued, along with seven other Western hostages, from the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“They were really fearful for her,” said Mindi Hardison Adams, who has known Miss Mercer since 1994 and 1995, when they were good friends at Vienna’s James Madison High School.

Yellow ribbons, symbolizing a happy homecoming, hung yesterday from lampposts and trees in the 9600 block of Counselor Drive, where Miss Mercer grew up and where her father resides.

Mrs. Adams, who now lives in Minneapolis, said she had been in contact through e-mail with Miss Mercer’s father, John Mercer, who had gone to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor, to try to help his daughter.

“I heard. It’s wonderful,” said Cynthia Rahal, sponsor of Madison’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes, of which Miss Mercer was a member.

“We were quite elated when we heard she might have been released,” said Betty Rahal, mother of Cynthia and director of Christian Education at Vienna Presbyterian Church.

“We’ll have a huge celebration,” said Jimmy Seibert, pastor of Antioch Community Church near Baylor University in Waco, Texas, anticipating the return of graduates Miss Mercer and Dayna Curry, the two Americans among the group of eight international aid workers jailed by the Taliban on Aug. 3 on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

“Right now, they are in the embassy in Islamabad [Pakistan]. They showered, had a good meal, and got their hair done,” Mr. Seibert said.

The eight were workers for Shelter Now International, a humanitarian-aid group based in Germany.

Mr. Seibert, in contact with an associate pastor in Pakistan, said the detainees will be flown in a couple of days to Central Europe to be debriefed. They will remain there until after Thanksgiving, then return to their homes, after which they will head for Waco.

Their imprisonment became especially dangerous after September 11, when Osama bin Laden, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, was accused of masterminding the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The U.S.-backed Northern Alliance began a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, raising fears that Miss Mercer and her companions might be used as hostages.

Mr. Seibert said yesterday that the Taliban locked Miss Mercer, Miss Curry, the two Australians and the four Germans in a metal container and told them to write notes to secure money for their release. When the Taliban guards fled before the advance of opposition forces, the prisoners were released.

Mrs. Adams has not seen Miss Mercer since March 3, when Miss Mercer was a bridesmaid at her wedding in Vienna. Miss Mercer went to Afghanistan soon afterward. She was arrested three months later.

“She had no intention of coming home for three years,” said Miss Rahal, who last saw Miss Mercer on Feb. 9. “She was totally committed to serving God and serving others.”

The commitment began in Vienna. Miss Rahal said she would pick up Miss Mercer at 5:45 a.m. Wednesdays and meet Mrs. Adams, then Mindi Hardison, for breakfast at McDonald’s next to the high school. She said they would discuss the Bible, accountability, discipleship and fellowship.

As result of those commitments, Vienna Presbyterian Church held a prayer service for Miss Mercer Oct. 22 and plans to continue with a service, now one of thanksgiving, at 7 p.m. on Dec. 3.

Her mother, Deborah Oddy, divorced and remarried, cried in her Lewiston, N.Y., home when she learned of Miss Mercer’s release.

“The news [of Miss Mercers release] trickled in,” said Madison Principal Mark A. Merrell, adding, “We’re real, real happy about it. We’re going to let the whole community know that everything has turned out really well.”

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