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Navy Helicopter Crew Competes for Rescues in New Orleans

11:38 AM, Sep 5, 2005   |    comments
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By BILL KACZOR Associated Press Writer NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- After nearly a day of searching flooded neighborhoods and hovering precariously close to power lines, Navy Seahawk 703 finally found people to rescue -- four men, two women and a dog wading through stinking, oily brown water. The four-member crew from North Island Naval Air Station at San Diego had been beaten to an earlier rescue by another helicopter. "Someone gets a sniff ... and everyone comes running in and wants to play," said Lt. Cmdr. Tim "Durdo" Durdin, of St. Paul, Minn., the 37-year-old pilot. "We call it 'little kids' soccer.' This is now turning into search-and-rescue little kids' soccer, which is great. That means we've rescued them all, hopefully." Six days after Hurricane Katrina, dozens of military and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters filled the air over New Orleans Sunday, but it was getting harder to find people who needed rescuing. To be sure, though, rescuers were searching house-to-house by land and boat looking for people still trapped by flood waters. The Coast Guard urged those who needed help to hang brightly colored or white sheets, towels or anything else that might help draw attention. Through Sunday, the Coast Guard alone had rescued 17,000 people by helicopter, boat and other means. Military helicopters had rescued thousands more, including about 3,000 by the Navy. Seahawk 703's crew began its 13-hour shift with an early morning briefing at Pensacola Naval Air Station before an hour-long flight to New Orleans. Their first tasks turned out to be false alarms. One man they spotted waving a white cloth in a moderately flooded section of the city said he only wanted some water. The helicopter hovered unnervingly close to power lines and trees as the crew lowered a bag of bottled water to the man. Durdin said Navy crews are trained for open sea rescues. "Being in here right next to power lines is all new," he said. "That's the first time I did that." The crew then joined a line of helicopters landing one at a time in a small, grassy school yard -- an island amid a flooded neighborhood -- to pick up people gathered there by National Guard troops. Five adults, three children, and their baggage were jammed into a seatless space about the size of a minivan in the HS-60 helicopter. The helicopter took off again as soon as the evacuees were dropped off at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. The crew's search took them near Lake Pontchartrain where Petty Officer 2nd Class Chas Dearie, 23, was raised until his family moved to Lake Charles, La., when he was in high school. "It's the rooftop water neighborhood," Dearie said over the intercom. He then pointed out a mostly submerged building and said "That white thing, that's my old house." When the chopper landed again for fuel and a bag lunch, he got on his cell phone and called his parents, hosting a house full of New Orleans relatives in Lake Charles, to confirm what they already knew from news reports. "I was able to see part of my grandma's house -- it was under water -- a few aunts' and uncles' houses," Dearie said. "They're all under water." His relatives, though, had evacuated before the storm. "They're all safe," Dearie said. "That's the important thing." By then, Petty Officer 2nd Class Evan Ramirez, 23, of West Palm Beach, Fla., was frustrated by what was turning into a sightseeing tour. He wanted some action, which he finally got when the helicopter picked up the group with the dog. He was lowered to the bed of a pickup truck, just above water level, eight times -- one for each person, a bag of their possessions and the black Labrador mix. "He was a little trouble to get him in the bag at first," Ramirez said. "After that he was really, really calm. I just held him almost like a baby." One of the women, though, insisted on holding a purse containing her medicine while being hoisted although Ramirez repeatedly assured her he would bring it up with the other baggage. "I'm diabetic, I'm diabetic," she kept saying. "I need my shots." Durdin said the rescuers don't usually take animals, but he didn't have the heart to refuse. "If the dog looks friendly enough, not going to freak out in the helicopter, I don't have a problem," he said. "Plus, my wife would never forgive me if I left the dog out there."

Associated Press

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