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'make a Right on 85!'

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Esther Green could hardly have been more excited. It was the evening of April 25, and she and her husband, Victor, a six-year pro football veteran with the New York Jets, were relaxing in their home outside Atlanta. That’s when Victoria, their tiny 10-month-old, teetered across the carpet to take her very first steps.

A goose-bumps moment, to be sure, but the truly hair-raising stuff came the next day. That was when Green, 25, and her infant daughter were taken on a terrifying 18-minute ride by two alleged carjackers, an ordeal they survived thanks to Green’s quick thinking.

The day began with no hint of the drama to come. In the morning, Green drove her husband to the Atlanta airport to catch a flight to New York City, where Victor was due for a four-day training camp. “Then I did a little housework while Victoria took a nap,” says Green, a minister’s daughter from Newport News, Va. In the afternoon she strapped her baby into the car seat in the back of her six-week-old silver Mercedes and headed out to visit her friend Musanna Hoskins. Together the women drove to a shopping center in nearby Fayetteville.

Around 4 p.m., Green was waiting in her car for Hoskins outside a copy store. When Victoria dropped her juice cup, Green got out and climbed into the backseat to retrieve it. That’s when Stephen Eric Bonnette, 18, slid into the driver’s seat. “My heart dropped,” says Green. “I grabbed his arm as he put the car in gear and said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

Green then reached forward, hit the horn and tried to grab the wheel, but Bonnette managed to pull out of the parking lot. By this time, Hoskins had emerged from the store and was astonished to see the car swerving away. “When the horn started honking wildly, this fear just came over me,” says Hoskins, 29. She ran back into the store and dialed 911, one minute and 17 seconds after police got another call—from inside the Mercedes.

It was Green, who had spotted her cell phone in Victoria’s diaper bag. She called 911, then slipped the phone back in the bag. “I couldn’t just pick it up and talk,” she says. “So I kept screaming, ‘You can have the car, just let me out with my baby!’—without knowing if anyone was hearing me.” Throughout the ride, Green continued badgering Bonnette from the backseat: “Please stop over here by the Wal-Mart!” and “We’re headed down 314? Why are we headed toward the airport?” At the Fayette County 911 communications center, rookie dispatcher Holly Eason quickly realized that Green was providing clues. (“There’s an ATM at the Kroger here on 85!”) “Once she started giving out locations,” says Eason, 20, “we passed them on to police.”

Unsure if anyone was listening, Green took Victoria out of her seat and prepared to jump from the car. But then Bonnette pulled in behind a market, and accomplice David McDonald, 21, got in the backseat beside her. Back on Highway 85, though, a police car pulled the Mercedes over seconds later. In a flash, several cruisers surrounded the car, and six officers—including dispatcher Eason’s father, Jim—approached with guns drawn and arrested the two men. Green got out and hugged Victoria, who for the first time during the ordeal started crying. “If she had been screaming,” says her mother, “it would have hampered the 911 people from hearing me.”

Others were more impressed with Green’s poise under pressure. “When she sees a wasp, Esther loses it,” says Musanna Hoskins. “It has to have been by the grace of God.” Reunited with Victor, who took the first flight back to Atlanta, Green finally came unglued. “Victor held me,” she says, “and I totally broke down.” But by then, her presence of mind had saved the day. “She was like John Elway in the fourth quarter,” says her beaming husband. “She came through when she had to.”

Alex Tresniowski

Gail Wescott in Atlanta, Lee Wohlfert in New York City