"Their orders were to go and deliver water and parts and to come back," Commander Holdener said.
But as the two helicopters were heading back home, the crews picked up a radio transmission from the Coast Guard saying helicopters were needed near the University of New Orleans to help with rescue efforts, the two pilots said.
Out of range for direct radio communication with Pensacola, more than 100 miles to the east, the pilots said, they decided to respond and turned their helicopters around, diverting from their mission without getting permission from their home base. Within minutes, they were over New Orleans.
"We're not technically a search-and-rescue unit, but we're trained to do search and rescue," said Lieutenant Shand, a 17-year Navy veteran.
Flying over Biloxi and Gulfport and other areas of Mississippi, they could see rescue personnel on the ground, Lieutenant Udkow said, but he noticed that there were few rescue units around the flooded city of New Orleans, on the ground or in the air. "It was shocking," he said.
Seeing people on the roofs of houses waving to him, Lieutenant Udkow headed in their direction. Hovering over power lines, his crew dropped a basket to pick up two residents at a time. He took them to Lakefront Airport, where local emergency medical teams had established a makeshift medical center.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Shand landed his helicopter on the roof of an apartment building, where more than a dozen people were marooned. Women and children were loaded first aboard the helicopter and ferried to the airport, he said.
Returning to pick up the rest, the crew learned that two blind residents had not been able to climb up through the attic to the roof and were still in the building. Two crew members entered the darkened building to find the men, and led them to the roof and into the helicopter, Lieutenant Shand said.
Recalling the rescues in an interview, he became so emotional that he had to stop and compose himself. At one point, he said, he executed a tricky landing at a highway overpass, where more than 35 people were marooned.
Lieutenant Udkow said that he saw few other rescue helicopters in New Orleans that day. The toughest part, he said, was seeing so many people imploring him to pick them up and having to leave some.
"I would be looking at a family of two on one roof and maybe a family of six on another roof, and I would have to make a decision who to rescue," he said. "It wasn't easy."
While refueling at a Coast Guard landing pad in early evening, Lieutenant Udkow said, he called Pensacola and received permission to continue rescues that evening. According to the pilots and other military officials, they rescued 110 people.
The next morning, though, the two crews were called to a meeting with Commander Holdener, who said he told them that while helping civilians was laudable, the lengthy rescue effort was an unacceptable diversion from their main mission of delivering supplies. With only two helicopters available at Pensacola to deliver supplies, the base did not have enough to allow pilots to go on prolonged search and rescue operations.
"We all want to be the guys who rescue people," Commander Holdener said. "But they were told we have other missions we have to do right now and that is not the priority."
The order to halt civilian relief efforts angered some helicopter crews. Lieutenant Udkow, who associates say was especially vocal about voicing his disagreement to superiors, was taken out of the squadron's flying rotation temporarily and assigned to oversee a temporary kennel established at Pensacola to hold pets of service members evacuated from the hurricane-damaged areas, two members of the unit said. Lieutenant Udkow denied that he had complained and said he did not view the kennel assignment as punishment.
Navy Pilots Who Rescued Victims Are Reprimanded
David S. Cloud, The New York Times, September 7, 2005
And here is what Andrea of Get Your Act On!, a New Orleans activist, has to say:
Meanwhile, the denial of aid appears to be continuing, though some supplies are getting into the city. Daniel, our friend that just got out of the city, reports that the National Guard troops that arrived in his neighborhood two days ago - the first signs of anyone other than the few residents left, were “good guys” and astounded to find out that the people left there had received no supplies of any kind. One helicopter pilot, upon finding this out, took it upon himself to go get supplies and within an hour had made 3 supply drops to the neighborhood. However, this was the action of an individual, the guard had not been given directions to bring food and water to people, merely to patrol the streets and ‘keep the peace.’
The stories Daniel has to tell are horrific, and we will be relating them over the next few days. He describes living in a complete war zone - the few people left in houses holed up together with guns, fearing for their lives. A big fire broke out in a warehouse on the levy that they thought was going to burn down the entire neighborhood. He talked about the ‘ghosts’ walking down St. Claude - the people who managed to escape from their attics in the flooded out lower 9th ward - people in a state beyond shock. Again, the stories of people calling the one radio station in town from their attics, desparate, saying there was but a foot of space left between the flood waters and the roof and to please come get them before they died - but there was no one to come get them.
So many stories of relief efforts being turned away. Wildlife and Fisheries who had a couple hundred boats going into the lower 9th ward for the first two days, rescuing the people trapped in attics and on roofs - until they were ordered to stop. A group of Virginia State troopers who came down with a truckload of supplies to help NOPD - who were stopped at the perimeter of New Orleans and ordered to go away. A US Naval hospital ship with 400 beds, doctors, helicopters, all sorts of equipment - they were in the gulf when the storm hit and were the first to arrive in the area - they are sitting empty, not allowed to help.
The list of instances in which rescuers were stopped in their tracks can easily be continued and would likely still not be complete.
This is your government at work. You are paying for this - if you are lucky with you tax dollars, and if you are not - with your blood or even your very life, or that of your family, friends or neighbors.