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Flying with a New Orleans Rescue Crew

by Tim Padgett ’84
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Sunday, September 4—Marine Lt. Ed Cunningham’s warning was spot-on: "It will be like flying into a hornet’s nest."

As he and Captain Bryan Willard piloted their large CH-53 helicopter closer to New Orleans on Saturday, the sky was frenetically dotted with all types and sizes of choppers, bobbing and weaving like bumblebees in a barely controlled chaos amidst the smoke of fires burning along the Mississippi River below. They searched for Hurricane Katrina survivors in large venues like the Convention Center—where a lone military air traffic controller with the call sign "Superman 00" somehow directed the evacuation of the 5,000 people still stranded there—to less visible pockets of the city like apartment buildings and half-submerged highway overpasses. It was a surreal, almost apocalyptic scene that made the name the crew had given this particular CH-53—Voodoo Child—seem all the more apt.

This was the saturation rescue scene that those trapped in New Orleans all last week—and those excoriating the Bush Administration as well as state and local officials for their sluggish response to Katrina’s devastation—had been waiting for. Finally freed from bureaucratic constraints, and with the looting and armed violence being checked by military police, the National Guard troops and other military personnel like the Voodoo Child’s Marines could go at their jobs with a warlike intensity. At one point, while the CH-53 was en route from the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL, Army officers on the ground radioed that the crew should stop and give them a ride someplace else first. Willard and Cunningham, who had been dispatched from their regular unit in New River, NC, answered, "Negative, sir"; they didn’t want this mission interrupted. Said one Marine officer who was not part of the Voodoo Child crew: "They know they need to come in here and execute as if it were combat. You’re seeing people at the lowest levels making life-and-death decisions in this operation, just like war."

As it neared New Orleans, the Voodoo Child touched down in a tiny field next to an apartment building whose residents, many of them physically and mentally disabled, were trapped inside by the floodwaters. As they filed into the helicopter with the most meager of belongings, the emotional pain of the adults contrasted with the excitement of children like Dawonne Matthews, 11, who was taking his first ’copter ride, joy- fully sporting the helmet that crew chief Corporal Jessica Buckley, 25, had given him to wear.

"We’ve never felt so forgotten in our lives," said Dawonne’s mother, Trinise Henry, who said the family’s food and bottled water had begun running out the day before. "Thank God this helicopter showed up, because I really thought no one was ever coming to get us."

She pointed to her disabled neighbors as the CH-53 flew them to relief shelters at New Orleans International Airport. "That woman there will die pretty soon if she doesn’t get the nitroglycerine for her heart condition; and that elderly man there has Alzheimer’s." She calmed down for a moment and then added, "And I didn’t tell my boy this, but there are dead bodies back in that building."

Both Buckley and her co-crew chief, Staff Sergeant James Ryba, 29, have seen duty in Iraq and said this mission was a shot in the arm for them.

"In Iraq I’m doing a job, but here it’s more emotional because it feels like you’re helping family," said Ryba. Said Buckley, "I know a lot of people have problems with the war in Iraq, and that it’s dividing the country. So I’m excited about doing this because it’s something that has the potential of uniting people for a change."

In three hours of flights between New Orleans and the airport, the Voodoo Child’s crew evacuated more than 70 people. Their last rescue of the day had the pilot setting the helicopter down precariously on an overpass, the rotor blades whipping up the noxious smell of oil, sewage, and corpses stewing in the city’s stubborn floodwaters. There the CH-53 received a group of blind people who had been brought to the helicopter by one of the rescue boats that were now coordinating more efficiently with the air rescue effort. Though they probably had more reason to be terrified, the blind seemed supremely calm in the helicopter, while many others who could see were crying. One young blind woman named Lavinia had even made sure she was wearing a neatly pressed blouse, blue skirt, and white dress shoes for her evacuation. "I’m fine, just fine," she said as the helicopter lifted off and a crew member slipped a helmet over her head. The evacuees with sight shook their heads in stunned disbelief as they saw their sunken city from the windows. It was a possible explanation of why Lavinia was so composed: she had the advantage of not having to view the tragedy all around her.

Copyright 2005 Time-Warner, reprinted with permission. In October, Padgett was awarded the Marie Moors Cabot Prize by the Columbia University School of Journalism.

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