By Mike Hellgren

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen only casually knew Alan Gross before Cubans imprisoned the aide worker, but he became intimately involved in the effort to free Gross. For years, he pressed the White House and the Castro regime, and he was there the moment it happened.

Van Hollen tells WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren that journey was filled with uncertainty.

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“Given the ups and downs over the last five years, it’s certainly one of those cases where it’s not over till it’s over. When you have so many different moving parts to integrate, there’s always the risk that something leaks out,” Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen said he first got a call last week from National Security Advisor Susan Rice telling him the plan to free Gross was a go. He was to board the plane with Gross’ wife Judy in tow for a 5 a.m. Wednesday departure–destination Havana.

“I got up at 3 a.m., but I didn’t really get up. I never really fell asleep because you’ve got adrenaline going,” said Van Hollen.

They landed around 8 a.m. Minutes later, what Van Hollen calls “the miracle moment” unfolded.

“We saw Alan there. And he’s lost a lot of weight, lost some teeth, but boy, did he have a big smile,” Van Hollen said. “And you could see in his eyes for the first time he said ‘this is really, really happening.’ We did have a brief meeting with the Cuban foreign minister, and then it was wheels up.”

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They were on the ground in Cuba for just half an hour.

It was an emotional end to a fight Van Hollen took on personally. WJZ was with him over the past five years as he rallied with Gross’ family. Van Hollen also met with Raul Castro himself.

“I never gave up, let me put it that way,” Van Hollen said. “Alan was the catalyst in many ways for all of this coming together. He never did give up and neither did we.”

The congressman said Gross still wants to be engaged in Cuba. He told WJZ he believes Gross would consider returning to the island nation in the future under the right circumstances.

The Cubans originally sentenced Gross to 15 years for spying. He claims he was working on a U.S.-government contract to connect Havana’s Jewish community to the Internet.

Gross has strong Maryland ties. He grew up in Baltimore, attended the University of Maryland and was working for a Bethesda-based government contractor when the Cubans arrested him for spying.

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