Coast Guard awards medals for rescue during flood captured on video
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN | Associated Press | Published: August 4, 2017
BATON ROUGE, La. — David Phung was amazed when he saw the viral video of him rescuing a woman and her dog from a sinking car during historic flooding in Louisiana last summer.
"It was all adrenaline and reaction. Seconds seemed like minutes," Phung recalled Friday after the Coast Guard presented him with the Silver Lifesaving Medal, making him the 2,160th person to receive the honor since Congress created it in 1874.
The Coast Guard also awarded medals to three other people who were on Phung's boat when the 28-year-old jumped into the floodwaters and ripped open the top of a convertible to rescue Hailey Brouillette before the car sank. Phung also saved the woman's poodle mix, Sassy, from drowning.
Phung's 38-year-old brother-in-law, Jason Dixon; 14-year-old nephew, Brandon Barrett; and WAFB-TV reporter Robbie Reynold received Meritorious Public Service medals. The reporter's video of the Aug. 13, 2016, rescue has millions of YouTube views.
"When I went back and watched the video, I just couldn't believe what I just did," said Phung, a land surveyor and charter boat captain.
Phung and Brouillette reunited several weeks after the rescue, with help from a Red Cross volunteer who befriended Brouillette at a shelter.
Brouillette, who didn't attend Friday's medal ceremony, tearfully thanked Phung during their reunion last summer.
"I know I don't know you, but I love you," Brouillette, then 53, said as she hugged the man she called her "angel" and "savior."
A storm that dumped up to 2 feet of rain on parts of south Louisiana triggered flooding that damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes last August. The extent of the flooding initially overwhelmed first responders, but legions of volunteers — dubbed the "Cajun Navy" — quickly launched their boats to assist in the rescue efforts.
Rear Adm. Dave Callahan, commander of the New Orleans-based 8th Coast Guard District, said many people risked their lives to save others during the flooding.
"We saw widespread examples of the best in humanitarian actions," Callahan said.
He described the four medal recipients as "humble to the core."
"They just feel like they were doing the right thing, but I would argue that they did a lot more than that," Callahan said. "We all believe they went above and beyond."
Dixon said he, Phung and Barrett had been helping stranded residents escape from flooded homes for about three hours before they saw Brouillette's sinking car.
"Oh my God! I'm drowning!" she shouted as they approached her.
Phung tried to smash a car window from the boat, then jumped into the water and used his hands to rip open a hole on the top of the car. Phung grabbed Brouillette by her arms as the car disappeared in the murky waters. She remained submerged for several seconds before Phung pulled her to the surface.
"Get my dog!" she shouted.
The poodle appeared to be underwater for at least 20 seconds before Phung took a deep breath, dove down and grabbed it.
"We were all kind of proud ourselves, how we reacted," Dixon said. "Everybody was calm, focused."
Dixon said they rescued dozens of other people that day. They were still out in the floodwaters when they began receiving a barrage of text messages from relatives and friends who saw the video of the rescue.
Dixon said the experience has been surreal.
"It took a long time for it to sink it," he added.