Thursday, September 2, 2010

Even hardened C-130 crews jarred

By Michael Jones
Charleston Daily Mail
Sept. 5, 2005

LAKE CHARLES, La. - Some might believe there is no greater trauma than the sights of war, but what members of the 130th Airlift Wing have seen seen this week has changed their view.

Nine crew members from a C-130 unit based in Charleston are seeing the human side of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. On Saturday, they successfully airlifted 48 severely ill patients to two Texas cities.

Just past midnight today, the crew airlifted another nine to Chennault Airport, a small airstrip here in western Louisiana.

Only a few walked the concourses of Louis Armstrong International Airport, but all of them saw the feeble, elderly survivors lying helplessly on stretchers stacked in the back of the plane. Most of these men have been to war, either Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. None of them, they say, have ever seen anything like the devastation in the aftermath of Katrina.

Senior Master Sgt. Dennis Heilmann, a full-time guardsman from Scott Depot, said this is the most impressive relief effort he has seen in his 26 years in the Air Guard. He also said aiding West Virginian flood victims couldn't prepare him for this task.

"I don't have words for it," he said Saturday in the airport concourse. "It was heartbreaking. I was awestruck.

"How do you convey the smell, the sight, and the feel of it?"

"Master Sgt. Dave Summerfield of Pinch has seen just about everything after serving in Vietnam and both Iraq wars.

"It's worse than any war I've been in," Summerfield said, referring to the casualties and destruction. "It's something I never expected."

The co-pilot of the crew's C-130, 1st Lt. Todd Perry, wished he could give the survivors the same care his family receives. Perry, a state trooper stationed in South Charleston, said seeing the frail victims made the crew push harder to evacuate more patients even after working an 18-hour shift.

"I felt like I had no control over anything, even with a 155,000-pound airplane," Perry said.

Because the disaster hit America, it made Perry reflect on who he was helping.

"This person could be an old neighbor from West Virginia or the guy working at the coal mine down the street," he said.

The experience has been just as gripping for others, including 1st Lt. Tim Street of Teays Valley, a new navigator slated for deployment in Iraq soon.

"This was the first I felt like I was doing something," Street said.

This morning's operation was the third trip the crew to made to New Orleans in less than 48 hours. Since then, relief workers have made major progress in removing survivors and cleaning the soiled airport hallways. An immense relief effort has been mounted over the past couple of days, seemingly making up for the initial problems.

Maj. Blake Jessen, director of operations for Lackland Air Force Base, said New Orleans had to turn away aircraft for a brief time because of the volume. The airport relief operation was the "largest airlift in American history," Jessen said.

"It took a little while for things to get going because the military won't go until somebody says start," Jessen said. "Once they did, there were enormous amounts of airlifts going in there and grabbing people and taking them out."

Perry saw a San Diego County sheriff's helicopter landing on the runway adjacent to his C-130. He said it was "unprecedented" to see such a large number of civilian and military aircraft landing simultaneously without incident.

"The airlift Saturday was more broad than anything I've seen in my 15 years in the military," Perry said.

On Saturday, thousands filed through endless lines as they waited to leave the airport. On Sunday, only a couple slept in the cramped concourses.

One man, George Deano from St. Bernard Parish, said he waited until Saturday to leave his friend's flooded two-story house. Deano, sitting with his dog, Tucker, waited so long because, for most of the week, evacuees were not allowed to bring their pets to shelters.

"We thought it would be bad, but not like this," he said. "I lost my Harley, my truck and my house."

Deano said he and his friend used a generator to restore power to the house. But many more didn't have that luxury. According to some accounts, more than 15,000 people were shuttled through the airport in four days. More than 2,500 were critical care patients needed immediate evacuation.

In fact, the crew from the 130th took the final nine patients from the airport. They laid on stretchers with Air Force medics in Gate D1. The day before, that gate was used as a temporary morgue.

Heading from San Antonio, the crew flew an ambulance, a team of medics and a crew from ABC's Good morning America coming from the Houston Astrodome.

"Of all the wars I've covered and all the stories, this is the saddest I've ever seen," said Nancy Snyderman, the crew's correspondent.

One hour into the final flight away from New Orleans, one of the critical care evacuees took a turn for the worse. The elderly woman's heart rate fell to 30 beats per minute, and a medic onboard requested an ambulance to be waiting when the flight arrived in Chennault.

The flight crew, led by Maj. Kyle Adams, a Delta pilot originally from Summersville and now living in Atlanta, immediately radioed ahead and focused on getting to the airfield as quickly as possible. Adams said the woman, fading with every passing minute, made him think of his family.

"The (medic) put it best," Adams said. "We had to give her the best chance to die comfortably."

When the plane arrived, she was whisked away to a waiting ambulance. The medics on the ground were able to stabilize her and give her a great chance for survival.

When the crew departed for San Antonio, there was a somber mood in the cockpit, even with the success of the mission. As time passed, though, the crew on the flight deck began to recite lines from the move, "Super Troopers." While flying over Houston, Perry radioed an air traffic controller to announce their position.

"Good evening, Houston Center, this is Evac 306 checking in 'meow' at flight level 200," Perry said, mimicking an inside joke from the movie.

Instantly, laughter filled the dreary cockpit. For a few minutes, the crew could step away from their work and smile.

2 comments:

  1. A few minutes after landing at Chennault, I asked Maj. Kyle Adams if I could interview him about the mission. He said no, then walked away. I was stunned because the crew had been so generous with their time and granted me interviews whenever I asked. This time, though, the emotion involved with the mission had clearly gotten to them.

    Adams came up to me a few minutes later, apologizing and offering to talk. He told me that nearly losing that elderly woman on his plane upset him and he needed time to cool off. I can't say I blame him. That's when I realized the tremendous amount of pressure these guardsmen were under. But there's no doubt that their work saved that woman's life, along with countless others.

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  2. I'm going to have to use the 'meow' line next time I fly.

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