"The Air Force lives by the creed 'service before self,' " Lauren Durham tells PEOPLE. "So that's what we're here for, to put the citizens first."

By Susan Keating
September 12, 2017 02:29 PM

Michael Davis and Lauren Durham were supposed to get married in mid-September. But one week before the big day, the couple decided to skip their scheduled wedding in order to rescue strangers from Hurricane Irma.

The couple still found a way to tie the knot, trading a romantic beach ceremony for impromptu “I do’s” inside a Florida hangar filled with rescue vehicles.

“We wanted to help out with the hurricane and give some relief to the citizens,” Durham tells PEOPLE.

As medical technicians with the Air National Guard, the couple knew that they had valuable skills to help in an emergency. They volunteered to join a search and recovery team in response to Irma. Far from the sea oats and white sands of their Atlantic Beach, Florida, wedding site, the engaged Senior Airmen decamped to the stark surroundings of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

On Sunday, while awaiting orders to wade into floodwaters, Durham, 24, and Davis, 26, chatted with teammates who jokingly suggested they get married during the hurricane.

The joke turned into a plan, which quickly became a mission. The cancelled wedding was back on — for that very day.

The first responders scrambled to make it happen.

Credit: David Sterphone/Florida National Guard

Someone found a small spray of orange flowers. Others arranged chairs to form pews and an aisle. Another Air Guard member who is a notary was pressed into service as an officiant. First responders from the Air Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing Medical Detachment-1, along with others from various agencies, became instantaneous wedding guests.

With Davis standing in the spot traditionally reserved for a groom at the head of a congregation, Master Sergeant Zachary Morris walked down the makeshift aisle with a smiling Durham holding his arm.

Shortly thereafter, Davis and Durham tied the knot.

The offbeat wedding didn’t phase the two, who in civilian life work at a hospital and are students at Florida State College. The dedicated first responders have a fun-loving side, as evidenced by their page on The Knot.

The pair wrote on the site that they met by chance at the grand opening of a Jacksonville, Florida, club. For Davis, it was “love at first sight” with “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

The two didn’t connect, though, until the second time they met.

“He claims he saved my life that night by bandaging my bleeding finger, but really all he did was steal my heart,” Durham wrote.

They were inseparable for years, and had an inside joke that Durham officially was not Davis’ girlfriend.

One night, the couple went to their favorite spot by a river, to watch the sun set. Davis got down on one knee.

Referencing the couple’s inside joke, the kneeling Davis told Durham: “I don’t want you to be my girlfriend, I want you to be my wife!”

Durham said “Yes.”

The two were all set for a romantic beach wedding — until Irma showed up and prompted them to change their plans.

They have no regrets.

“We volunteered to come out here and support Florida,” Durham says.

“The Air Force lives by the creed ‘service before self,’ ” Davis says. “So that’s what we’re here for, to put the citizens first.”