Catastrophes provide heroic moments

Tom Philpott

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 also 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 his skills 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.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina 43 Coast Guard helicopters from 11 air stations converged on the Gulf Coast to save more than 12,500 lives. Small Coast Guard boats and cutters rescued another 11,600. 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 (AST3) 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.

Last Tuesday, at first light, all seven of center’s HH-65 Dolphins, the Coast Guard’s short-range helicopter, deployed south and west of Mobile to find survivors. Fisher flew the newer C model with its more powerful engine and load capacity. He welcomed the shift from instructor to operator but, on 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, moved them away from trees and power lines onto a nearby railroad track for hoisting.

Fisher’s HH-65C was back the following afternoon, this time over New Orleans where broken levees had caused citywide flooding, stranding thousands atop homes and apartment buildings.

“It was absolutely desperate,’’ Fisher said. “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 people by the basket. Once the plane was full, the helicopter flew to a highway cloverleaf to drop them off and return to pick up more people.

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 air crews are used to open-sea rescues, away from trees and power lines. New Orleans had both, and these 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 (GPS) 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.’’

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: