Saturday, September 5, 2015

A smile and hug he never forgot

Air Force Master Sgt. Mike Maroney had just returned from Afghanistan when he was sent to New Orleans ten years ago to rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina. For a week, he dropped on a rope from a helicopter to rooftop after rooftop, rescuing folks whose homes were mostly under water. It was grueling work, but one little girl made it all worthwhile. She was three years old, and she give him a joyful smile and hug after she and her family were safely on his helicopter. A military photographer snapped their picture, which later appeared everywhere, including Burger King placemats and AT&T phone cards. Maroney didn't get the child's name, but he never forgot her smile, and has tried to locate her ever since.

LaShay after her rescue ten years ago.

Now 40, he knew his chances of reunion were slim. "I figured one in a trillion," he said, but last February a friend launched the #FindKatrinaGirl campaign which was picked up by hundreds of news outlets. Soon, in the words of the child's mother, Shawntrell Brown, "the whole neighborhood told us they saw LaShay in the news and someone was looking for her." Shawntrell contacted Maroney and arranged for him to meet LaShay Brown, now 13.

                                                                       LaShay today.      Photo by WLOX
LaShay, who now lives in Waveland, MS, was too young to remember the hug, but has heard the story of her rescue often. "I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time," she said of Maroney. "I've barely seen any of the pictures!" Maroney explained why he kept searching for LaShay. "In my line of work, it doesn't usually turn out happily. This hug, this moment, was like -- everybody I've ever saved, that was the thank-you."

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