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No life left behind – rescuers save people, pets

JACKSON, Miss. -- Senior Master Sgt. James Sanchez carries a cat he rescued from the second floor of a flooded house in New Orleans.  The cat, which he named PJ, is one of 22 cats he has saved during rescue missions in support of Hurricane Katrina relief operations.  Sergeant Sanchez is a pararescueman with the 306th Rescue Squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Elaine Mayo)

JACKSON, Miss. -- Senior Master Sgt. James Sanchez carries a cat he rescued from the second floor of a flooded house in New Orleans. The cat, which he named PJ, is one of 22 cats he has saved during rescue missions in support of Hurricane Katrina relief operations. Sergeant Sanchez is a pararescueman with the 306th Rescue Squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Elaine Mayo)

JACKSON, Miss. -- Lately when Senior Master Sgt. James Sanchez goes on a rescue mission, he makes sure some basics are in order – a secure hoist, communication with his helicopter, ear protection, water, dog biscuits and a can of cat treats.

To him, every life is worth saving.

Sergeant Sanchez is a pararescue jumper or PJ with Air Force Reserve Command’s 306th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

“It’s hard to turn away an animal that is going to die there (New Orleans) if you don’t get them out,” Sergeant Sanchez said. “If they come to me, I take them. If they run away, I can’t chase them.”

It seems like the animals know the PJs are there to rescue lives and want to be taken.

“It’s amazing how many dogs run up to you wanting to be rescued,” the reservist said. “We had dogs chasing the helo. One dog swam through the water and jumped on a PJ.”

Sept. 10 was no different. With a 7 a.m. take-off time, one HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter with Sergeant Sanchez on board headed for New Orleans with a list of names and addresses of Crescent city residents still unaccounted for.

“We had picked up a girl two days before who said she saw a candle in the next building,” said Sergeant Sanchez.

That’s one of the ways they have been getting “intel” on potential survivors and one of the addresses they were headed for.

The crew relied on the Internet, satellite maps, other mapping software and an on-board global position system to locate someone’s house.

Once they get near their target they started looking for identifying marks.
”We look at roof patterns for addresses we received from Google Map and satellite maps,” said Lt. Col. Robert Ament, director of operations for the Reserve’s 920th Rescue Wing from Patrick AFB, Fla.

As the pilot positioned the helicopter over a house, Sergeant Sanchez was grabbing a helmet bag loading it with bottles of water and a bag of dog biscuits. A can of cat treats was already in his pocket.

“We are out there searching so we might as well do something,” said Sergeant Sanchez. “When we go into a house, a dog could be going crazy, so you give him something to eat and it calms him down.”

With the helmet bag slung over his shoulder, Sergeant Sanchez and Tech. Sgt. Paul Schultz, another PJ from the 306th, clung onto the hoist in tandem and descended to the rooftop. The first floor of the house still flooded.

Sergeant Sanchez disappeared into an opening in the roof looking for survivors. He found no people on the second floor, but did find a cat.

“It was real friendly,” Sergeant Sanchez said. “He came right up to me meowing and started rubbing up against me, kneading his paws on my leg.”
The sergeant could tell the cat wanted to be rescued.

“He didn’t fight me as I put him into the helmet bag,” he said.
Sergeant Sanchez named the cat “PJ.”

“I’ve rescued 22 cats. The guys are starting to tease me and call me ‘cat man,’” said Sergeant Sanchez.

But that’s OK with the sergeant, who owns a dog and has been thinking about getting his daughter a cat.

“I have a dog so I put myself in their (evacuees) position. If my house flooded, I would have my family leave and I’d stay behind with my dog if I couldn’t take him,” explained the sergeant.

The sergeant said he’s seen dogs locked in bathrooms with no food or water.
“I open the windows and doors so they can get out when the water goes down … I give them water and food,” said Sergeant Sanchez.

Since he began rescue operations Aug. 30, Sergeant Sanchez has rescued 11 dogs and about 60 people.

The first night out he rescued 47 people.

“I’ve gotten more saves here than in my 22 years being a PJ,” said Sergeant Sanchez.

The helicopter crew flew PJ the cat to a nearby forward Army refueling point or FARP located near the Zephyr Stadium in Metarie, La. Tech. Sgt. Vicky Major, an Air National Guard member with the 159th Fighter Wing in Belle Chase, La., was there to offer a helping hand.

“These sights we land at have shelters for animals,” said Sergeant Sanchez.
Sergeant Major held PJ, while Sergeant Sanchez fed the cat some food. The cat devoured a number of treats and drank nearly one half cup of water without stopping.

Once assured PJ was safe, the Air Force reservists went on their way to locate another address.

“There’s no greater feeling than to save a life,” said Sergeant Sanchez. (AFRC News Service)