Rescuer honored for rooftop heroics

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Coast Guard rescue swimmer George R. Lockamy saved 77 people in post-Katrina New Orleans

Coast Guard rescue swimmer George R. Lockamy saved 77 people in post-Katrina New Orleans

Coast Guard rescue swimmer George R. Lockamy was never trained to rescue people from rooftops, but two days after Hurricane Katrina, he found himself descending from an orange helicopter by cable to one New Orleans rooftop after another, armed with a hatchet, looking for survivors.

“They [the residents] would cut a hole in the roof and crawl out,” he says. “Usually the smallest person would crawl out. We would land; they would tell us how many people are inside.”

Then Lockamy would begin wielding his “crash axe,” a small hatchet, creating a larger hole through which adults trapped below could escape. In the course of three days, during which he risked his life numerous times, Lockamy and his helicopter crew saved 77 people from the flood, according to the Coast Guard.

For these efforts, Lockamy, 23, a five-year Coast Guard veteran from Virginia Beach, Va., was awarded the Gold Medal of the Association for Rescue at Sea, one of the highest honors given to Coast Guard members. The AFRAS silver medal was presented to Coast Guard Auxiliary member Toby A. Ducote, who is credited with using his boat to single-handedly rescue 250 New Orleans residents following the hurricane. And an AFRAS plaque was awarded to the crew of the Japanese-registered ship Ocean King for the rescue of 23 crewmen from a burning bulk carrier in the Pacific 300 miles north of Guam.

Lockamy, who is assigned to Air Station Detroit, says his three days of flying over flooded New Orleans was “definitely the highlight of my career.”

“I’ve never seen that much action.” he says. “We fly a lot. By the time we’re up in the air and on the scene [in the Great Lakes area], there’s already a boat there. Kind of a downfall of being on a lake — a lot of good Samaritans.”

Lockamy was quick to volunteer for Katrina duty, flying to Panama City, Fla., the morning after the storm and renting a car to get to a helicopter in Mobile, Ala. Once the chopper took off, it would be three days before it returned to Mobile. Lockamy says his “most popular” rescue came on the second day, when the crew lowered a basket to a rooftop to rescue a man waving a flag. Once the man was in the chopper, they learned that his wife and another man were still in the house.

“That kind of upset me because he was going to leave his wife in the house,” Lockamy says. The basket was lowered again, and the second man was hoisted. But when the basket was lowered a third time, the woman refused to board it. At that point, Lockamy hooked himself onto the cable. But when he was lowered, he found himself tangled in the branches of a tree. He says he unclipped the cable to set it free and began climbing down the tree’s wet limbs. Below him, he saw that the woman, who had been standing on her porch, had passed out, and as he scrambled toward her he slipped on a branch and fell, landing on his back on the submerged hood of a car. He then waded through the floodwater to get the woman, as she was regaining consciousness. He managed to get her into the basket for rescue.

Another one that was “pretty cool,” says the exuberant rescue swimmer, began when the chopper crew saw a teenager on the roof of a house. The youth told Lockamy that his family was huddled on the second floor, below the attic. Among them was his diabetic grandfather in a wheelchair. Chopping a bigger hole in the roof, Lockamy climbed down into the attic, where he found a folding attic ladder. When he lowered the ladder, the bottom half fell off, so he jumped down to the second floor.

“There were two other older men with them. I had three old men, and I had to get these guys through the attic, onto the roof,” Lockamy says. “The two old men helped me pick the guy up out of the wheelchair. I still don’t know how we did that. I stacked up two coolers for them to climb on.” Together, he and the two elderly men hoisted the disabled man to the attic and then the roof, from which he was hoisted.

For Lockamy, the whole Katrina experience was “pretty cool.”

“It reminded me of a war movie,” he says. “Every branch of the military was there. Everybody was working together as a team.”