An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Tell the voices you’re leaving

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Elaine Mayo
  • Air Force Reserve Command Recruiting Service Public Affairs
During a casual conversation with a clerk at the hotel she was staying, Air Force reservist Senior Master Sergeant Cheryl King, listened intently to the clerk describe his concern for his handicapped cousin, Joseph, who lives in New Orleans and had been missing since Katrina hit the city hard. She didn’t know at the time her conversation would pull her, a maintenance superintendent with the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., into a rescue operation unlike any other.

“The night clerk working at the front desk asked me what we did and I told him we were combat rescue. He told me about his cousin Joseph in New Orleans that he hadn’t been able to get a hold of. He said Joseph couldn’t talk and was worried about him being trapped in his house.” said Sergeant King. He asked the sergeant if her rescue group could go look for him.

“The next day, the clerk gave me a note with contact information and wrote, ‘Please check the house good. He may be in the attic or upstairs bedroom’,” said Sergeant King. “I talked to our maintenance commander, Lt. Col. Dale Lewis, with the 920th RQW and he said OK.” Col. Davis passed the information onto the crew flying that day.

“This day was especially rewarding for me because a majority of rescues had been accomplished,’ said Tech. Sgt. Andrew Canfield, pararescue jumper with the 304th Rescue Squadron at Portland IAP, Ore. “We took the house address Sergeant King gave us and plugged it into StreetSmarts, a software that converts addresses into coordinates and were able to fly directly to the house.

“When we came into a low hover, we could read the street name and house number. It was about 4-5 feet under water and the roof was steeply pitched. With the consensus of the crew, I was hoisted down to the roof and shimmied over to a blown-out attic window and looked inside.

“I called out, ‘U.S. Air Force pararescue. We’re here to get you out,’ but got no response. I thought it was worth investigating further, so I entered the house through the window,” said Sergeant Canfield. First, he did a radio check with his helicopter crew and let them know his plans.

Once in the darkened house, he walked down a hallway toward a door with beads hanging on it. He saw a small candle lit inside the room and the faint shadow of someone hovering over the candle.

“I motioned for him to come out, but he appeared nervous, so I tried to reassure him through my body language and kind words,” said Sergeant Canfield.

Nonverbal Joseph motioned to the PJ with his hand, the action of writing, so the PJ gave him a pen. Joseph wrote, “I am a schizophrenic. The voices suggested that I stay here during the storm. That’s why I stayed.”

The PJ wrote back, “I am here to get you out. Tell your voices that you are leaving now. Pack up a small suitcase with your valuable belongings and a change of clothes. Put some shoes on.”

Joseph wanted to stay, but Sergeant Canfield wrote back, “No! The water will take weeks to months to go down.” Joseph nodded his understanding of the situation and disappeared.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Canfield called his helicopter and told the crew he found Joseph and would be ready for pickup in five minutes.

Joseph was afraid to fly, writing, “How long is the ride. I don’t like flying.” The PJ wrote back, “It is a one hour flight. You can sleep on the way.”

They also wrote back and forth about Joseph’s cousin Calvin from Jackson, Miss., Sergeant Canfield writing, “I talked to Calvin, your cousin … Do you want to go to Calvin’s house?”

In another note, Joseph, a smoker, made a request, “Please could I get a pack of Camel or any kind.”

Joseph reappeared carrying a bag, shoes, glasses and wearing a Gilligan-style hat. They exited the window; first the PJ, then Joseph followed.

“We worked our way to the apex of the roof and I made him sit down,” said Sergeant Canfield. “He was in good condition but showed signs of instability … I called the helo for pickup and had it stay in high-hover (150 feet above) to prevent the rotor wash from blowing him over.”

The hoist was lowered and the two rode up together, Sergeant Canfield wrapping his arms and legs around Joseph for security and to prevent stress on his mid-section.

At 150 feet the 360-degree view was amazing. Said Sergeant Canfield of Joseph, “He was in awe of the flooding. His jaw dropped.”

They flew Joseph to the New Orleans International Airport for processing and they called Joseph’s cousin Calvin.

“When we landed at the airport, he pulled out a wad of cash and tried to pay me,” said Sergeant Canfield. “I’ve heard that from other people. They (evacuees) think they have to pay for their ride out of the city.”

“I just heard he got back with his family, his cousin,” said Sergeant Canfield. “When I think about it, it makes me feel very good—to think he could still be sitting in his house. He may or may not have had the where-with-all to flag someone down.”

Joseph had been in his house for 10 days after the Hurricane Katrina hit land, and he had limited food and water. He may still be there, had it not been for one small act of kindness by Sergeant King, passing that note and request onto Colonel Lewis.

Sergeant King was on the flightline that evening when the helicopter landed. She was anxious to learn if they had found Joseph.

“I received the plane when it got back that day and when Sergeant Canfield got off the helo and gave me a hug, he said ‘We got him Cheryl’, that one rescue made it all,” said Sergeant King.