While GA provided lots of help in the days after this summer's hurricanes, the bulk of search and rescue was provided by the U.S. Coast Guard. There were thousands of stories of amazing heroics and bravery by both rescuers and survivors; this is just one of them.
December 11, 2005
In the weeks that followed Hurricane Katrina, the images being showcased by the media were hard to miss: helicopter rescue crews hoisting survivors off rooftops in the flooded city of New Orleans. With nowhere to go but the murky waters that surrounded their flooded homes, Hurricane Katrina survivors looked to the sky for hope and found the unmistakable orange rescue helicopters of the U.S. Coast Guard.
For the men and women of the Coast Guard, rescuing people from a city nicknamed "The Big Easy" proved to be nothing short of a challenge. Conventional methods of rescue had succumbed to the whim of compromise and ingenuity. If the hurricane victims were to survive, rescue crews needed to discover new methods of rescue and adapt to the urban setting.
Slightly larger than the New York City Police Department, the 40,000 men and women serving in the Coast Guard saved more than 33,500 lives. In all, Coast Guard personnel saved more lives during Hurricane Katrina then they did nationally in the last eight years combined.
At the peak of rescue operations, more than 40 percent of the entire Coast Guard air fleet was working along the Gulf coast in rescue and relief efforts. Personnel from Hawaii, Alaska, Massachusetts, Florida and all points in-between gathered along the Gulf coast to assist in search and rescue missions.
Down to the Rooftops
On the first day of rescue operations, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel M. Sayers, an aviation survival technician, or "rescue swimmer," found himself in a compromising position when he was lowered onto a rooftop to rescue an older woman stranded by the rising floodwaters.
The noise and constant, downward air pressure coming from the HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter were nothing new to Sayers; however, the sloped roof and flying shingles presented new hazards to the rescue swimmer who normally works in open water.
When he landed, Sayers began talking to the frightened woman and learned that her husband was still in the attic of their house, unable to move. Sayers looked through the small opening in the roof the woman had managed to escape through and saw the woman's husband. After several failed attempts to widen the hole and free the man using the helicopter's hatchet, Sayers knew he needed something with more weight and strength if he was to save the man trapped inside.
"I knew I had to do something to get him out of there," Sayers recalled. "I looked through the hole in the roof and told the man 'I promise you, I will come back to get you.'"
Sayers tied off a brightly colored piece of cloth around one of the house's vent pipes and convinced the wife she had to, at least for now, leave her husband behind. Sayers and his survivor, as they are referred to in search and rescue jargon, were hoisted to the helicopter and taken to a nearby, makeshift landing zone the aircrew had established earlier that day.
"When we landed, I asked one of the crewmembers to find me something to cut through the roof with," Sayers said. "When he returned, he brought with him a fire ax he got from a fireman."
Returning As Promised
Once they gathered the supplies they needed, the aircrew returned to the neighborhood with the woman still onboard. "I knew finding the house was going to be difficult, even with the helicopter's Global Positioning System -- everything looked the same," Sayers said. "That's why I tied the cloth to the pipe."
Once the house was located, Sayers was again lowered to the roof -- this time, fire ax in hand.
"I looked back into the hole in the roof, and the husband looked surprised to see me," Sayers recalled. "He was either surprised I came back, or he was in shock. Sadly, I think he was a little bit of both."
Over the thunderous noise of the rescue helicopter hovering above them, Sayers yelled to the man to move away from the opening.
"I just started with the ax and kept chopping through the roof until it was big enough to pull him through," Sayers recalled.
Once the man was pulled to safety from the humid attic, he was hoisted into the helicopter and reunited with his wife.
"Looking over the city, you could see how grateful the couple was, not only to be rescued, but to be alive," Sayers said.
A brief portion of Sayer's heroic rescue was captured by another crewmember and seen by millions when every national media outlet in the country broadcast the 15-second video clip. In addition, ABC News honored Sayers when they named him Person of the Week.
"The title was honorary," Sayers said. "All of us in the Coast Guard were doing what we are trained to do -- it's our job. I accepted the title on behalf of everyone working to save those affected by the hurricane. In a sense, ABC didn't name me the Person of the Week -- the title was given to the Coast Guard in honor of what we, as an organization, were doing. This was a team effort."
Sayers' rescue prompted the Coast Guard's immediate purchase of fire axes. Every rescue swimmer from that point on carried a fire ax in addition to their standard issue gear.
Since its inception in 1790, search and rescue has always been a mission of the Coast Guard. Light keepers of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which later joined other agencies to form the modern-day Coast Guard, were often called upon to save lives.
Hurricane Katrina is the Coast Guard's biggest testament to its long-established history and continued traditions.
"When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the men and women of the Coast Guard answered the call of duty with pride," said Capt. Bruce Jones, commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans.
"The service's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty became the battle cry that drove these individuals to test their strengths and challenge their weaknesses in situations, which were nothing short of extraordinary."
Jones said, "Despite the great challenges they faced, their training, stamina and adrenaline allowed Coast Guard rescue crews to successfully accomplish their mission: Save the lives of those who cannot save themselves."
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