Airman finally finds the Katrina survivor whose bear-hug captured his heart
By LINDSEY BEVER | The Washington Post | Published: September 2, 2015
It was a heartening moment captured amid overwhelming bleakness: A 3-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor wrapped her chubby little arms round an Air Force pararescue jumper who had rappelled into New Orleans to save the girl's family from floodwaters.
The 2005 photograph showing a toddler with pigtails and an ear-to-ear grin holding tight to Staff Sgt. Michael Maroney was soon everywhere — plastered on Burger King placemats, AT&T phone cards, a magazine cover.
For many people, including Maroney, the photo represented hope at a time of total devastation.
"It had been such a rough week; when she wrapped me up in that hug, I was in la-la land," Maroney, now 40, told The Washington Post this year. "Nothing else existed. I was just loving that hug."
Maroney never got the child's name, and he has never stopped trying to find her.
Now, he has.
LeShay Brown, now 13, lives with her family in Waveland, Miss.
Brown and her relatives plan to reconnect with Maroney in New Orleans later this month, according to People magazine.
"I can't wait to meet her to tell her how important she is," Maroney told the magazine. "In my line of work, it doesn't usually turn out happily. This hug, this moment, was like — everybody I've ever saved, that was the thank you."
In September 2005, Maroney was sent to New Orleans to find survivors in Katrina's aftermath. LeShay's family was waiting to be rescued, and the young girl soon found herself in Maroney's MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.
She planted a bear-hug on him — and it was captured by an Air Force photographer.
LeShay has since said she doesn't remember the hug, but those who saw it will never forget it.
"I was crying because I was scared . . . that was the first time I was on a helicopter, the first time I was on a plane and the first time I ever left New Orleans," LeShay's mother, Shawntrell Brown, told People magazine. "The helicopter had open doors, so I looked out and you could just see all the water over everything, and it was just too much for me, so she was comforting me."
"It's okay," LeShay told her mother at the time, according to Air Force Times. "We're safe. Don't worry."
Maroney is now an Air Force Reservist who instructs pararescue jumpers in San Antonio, and for years since the rescue — and hug — he has been searching for the girl, posting messages on Facebook and Instagram.
In 2010, he said he even penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey looking for help, but he never got a reply.
It wasn't until this February that the story started gaining traction, when 16-year-old Andrew Goard from Waterford, Mich., launched the #FindKatrinaGirl campaign.
The next month, Air Force Times wrote about Maroney's quest to find the girl, and the campaign went viral.
"I would love to get another hug and see how she's doing," Maroney told The Washington Post at the time, noting that he still had the photo up in his home. "I'd love her to know that there isn't a day I haven't thought of her."
The news eventually made its way back to LeShay Brown.
"The whole neighborhood told us they saw LeShay on the news and everybody told us someone was looking for her," her mother told People. After she saw the photo, Shawntrell Brown said: "I knew that it was her."
"I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time," LeShay told the magazine.
The odds of finding her were long, Maroney told People.
"I figured one in a trillion," he said. "I thought it never would have happened."