Military Update: Coast Guard coolly, calmly collected survivors
During Lt. Todd Fisher’s first tour as a young helicopter pilot, at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., he would peer across the Tarmac to Coast Guard Air Station Savannah and notice not only the colorful paint scheme of Coast Guard helicopters but the timing of their deployment.
“Every time we’d be coming back in, because the weather was bad, the Coast Guard guys would be going out,” Fisher recalled.
Six years ago, Fisher transferred to the Coast Guard. He never appreciated the move more than this month, after participating in perhaps the greatest sustained rescue operation the service has seen.
Forty-three Coast Guard helicopters from 11 air stations converged on the Gulf Coast, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to save more that 12,500 lives. Coast Guard small boats and cutters rescued another 11,600 and combined service units evacuated 9,400 patients from hospitals.
Most of the rescues occurred from Aug. 30, the day after Katrina hit, through Sept. 3, when an unprecedented swarm of Coast Guard units was joined by units from other armed forces, as well as federal, state and local law agencies.
By then, Fisher, with his co-pilot Lt. Donnis Waters, and rotating teams of enlisted crewmen, had rescued 58 residents of New Orleans, including four infants.
If, as officials suggest, Fisher’s experience was typical of pilots, Jeff Lowe’s story was typical of Coast Guard rescue swimmers. Within three days, this 26-year-old aviation survival technician had hoisted 25 women, children and men to safety. They were the first lives Lowe had saved since joining the Coast Guard five years ago.
Katrina brought unprecedented devastation to millions but it created a mother lode of opportunity for rescuers to test their training and courage. In contrast to other parts of government, the Coast Guard’s performance in Katrina’s wake matched its motto of semper paratus, always prepared.
Both Fisher and Lowe are assigned to Air Training Center Mobile, Ala. As Katrina approached, Fisher, an instructor pilot, joined others in flying ATC helicopters to Jacksonville, Fla., out of the storm’s path. They returned late Monday, Aug. 29, in time to be buffeted by Katrina’s outer bands while in route.
Tuesday, at first light, all seven of the center’s HH-65 Dolphins, the Coast Guard’s short-range helicopter, deployed south and west of Mobile to find survivors. Fisher welcomed the shift from instructor to operator but, that day, his crew saw only destruction and no one to rescue.
Lowe, patrolling in a separate HH-65, sped 60 miles offshore to inspect a raft torn from an oil rig. It was empty. Flying west to Bay St. Louis, Miss., the crew picked up three adults in need of medical care, moving them to a nearby railroad track for hoisting, away from trees and power lines.
Fisher’s HH-65C was back up the following afternoon, this time over New Orleans where broken levees had caused citywide flooding, leaving thousands standing atop homes and apartment buildings.
“It was absolutely desperate,” said Fisher. “We could see people everywhere, waving their arms.”
Fisher’s crew hovered above a crowd gathering on higher ground near an orange sport utility vehicle, west of the Superdome. His rescue swimmer and flight mechanic began hoisting by basket. Once the plane was full, the helicopter flew to a highway cloverleaf to drop them off and return.
“The most I brought up were six at a time,” Fisher said. “Ten people (with crew) on that aircraft is a lot.”
Each time the helicopter returned to the orange SUV, the water was higher, finally reaching its windows. Other helicopters arrived and Fisher’s crew moved on to begin plucking survivors from rooftops. Coast Guard aircrews are used to open-sea rescues, away from trees and power lines. New Orleans had both, and they became harder to spot after sunset.
With no electricity, the city turned black except for a constellation of flashlights and helicopter searchlights. Every few hours, crews refueled at Air Station New Orleans. Pilots and co-pilots switched seats. With so many to rescue, crews communicated by radio constantly, noting survivors left behind and sharing global positioning system coordinates to find them.
Fisher directed his rescue swimmer to triage victims on roofs, taking the injured off first followed by children, women and men. At one point Fisher turned around to see a newly recovered woman in his plane blowing kisses to him while hugging the rescue swimmer.
Pilots can fly six hours only, followed by 10 hours of mandatory rest. Returning from New Orleans that first night, Fisher had logged 8.4 flight hours. “We pushed it as far as we could,” he said.
As exhausted crews returned, fresh crews got aboard. Fisher gave a “high-five” to a replacement pilot he had flown with out of Miami.
“The maintenance guys were unbelievable, turning aircraft around like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “Our aircraft were flying 24 hours a day.”
Lowe spent Wednesday night over New Orleans aboard an HH-60J Jayhawk, the service’s medium-range helicopter. He brought to safety 21 people that night, nine through a window by “direct deployment,” that is, while hooked to the hoisting cable. He fitted a padded strop to each evacuee, cinched it tight, held them close, gave a thumbs up and the hoist operator brought them to safety. Every rescue felt familiar, like training, Lowe said, until the family at the window passed him a child.
“All of a sudden this kid’s life is in your hands, know what I mean,” he said. Lowe said he slowed down a little to consider the new responsibility, then cinched the strop and signaled thumbs up.
For several days, the air rescue effort seemed to be a Coast Guard-only show, one that pilots and crew said they would never forget.
“Talking to people who’ve been in 20 or 30 years,” Lowe said, “nobody had seen anything like this.”
Many had rescued more lives in a single week than would throughout the rest of their careers, Fisher agreed.
But then Coast Guard attention shifted — to Hurricane Rita.