We’ve been busy finishing up the last touches of the documentary. In the meantime, we’ve had another interview to give our audience more scope to what really happened during Katrina. We want to thank AST1 Matthew Laub for participating in our interview and sharing his personal account and images with us. Read on below to see what he experienced.
1. Being that this was the largest rescue in American history, how did it affect you as a fairly new Coast Guardsman?
I was stationed in Savannah at the time, and had only been a Rescue Swimmer for just shy of 2 years . I had trained and worked very hard to get where I was at, yet I still had very little real life rescue experience. As far as Katrina goes, I was in the “right place at the right time” as they say. The levee in New Orleans broke, and my Chief walked in the shop and said “Laub, pack your stuff. You’re going.” I was very excited and extremely nervous. Two hours later I was on a USCG HU-25 Falcon aircraft enroute the disaster area.
As a Rescue Swimmer, we are taught to be the calm in the face of chaos. My training kicked in and I went into a different mode. It was almost like I was playing some sort of live-action video game. If I were to actually stop and think about how massive the rescue mission was, I would easily become overwhelmed and not be able to function or do what I was sent there to do. You will probably get the same answer from most of my fellow Rescue Swimmers who were there. We each performed flawlessly and never thought twice about it. I was so proud to be in the USCG, and to be a part of that operation, and especially to be a Rescue Swimmer. I knew this was something big, but had no idea that it was the largest rescue in American history. It is a bond that all those Rescue Swimmers and Aircrews will share forever. Looking back, I am honored to have been given a chance to play a part in it.
2. What was your most memorable rescue?
These days, I can’t seem to remember my day to day plans and little things, yet I still remember each rescue during Katrina as if it were yesterday. But if I had to narrow it down to my most memorable, then there is one that stands out from the rest. It was my first one. It was mid morning on September 1, 2005. The sun had already baked the city, and it was at least 100 degrees. We just attempted a rescue from a balcony of an high-rise apartment building, but had to terminate the hoist because I was spinning erratically due to the surrounding buildings creating some sort of wind tunnel.
We were all a bit frustrated, when one of the pilots spotted a red shirt or towel waving from an upstairs window of a nearby house. They lowered me to the roof, and I yelled through the window trying to find out how many people were inside. I heard “three!”. The easy option would’ve been the window, but the metal burglar bars ruled that out. Plan B. I used the small helicopter emergency escape crash axe and started chopping through the roof. Once I broke a big enough hole free, I jumped to down and ended up in the upstairs bathroom. I immediately noticed just how extremely hot it was inside the house. It felt 120 degrees at least. I figured whoever was in this house must really be ready to get out. Floodwater was all the way up the stairwell, basically trapping them upstairs.
I rounded the corner and the first bedroom I came to I saw three people sitting on a bed. A fairly young mom, dad, and their daughter. She could have been 12 or 13. I introduced myself and went to work. My pilots were radioing me, trying to speed things up. I had to find a place to hoist them, and quickly. All of the windows were not options because of the burglar bars, except there was one window that had an air conditioning unit built into it. I used the axe and chopped around it until I was able to kick it out. I was a little aggravated because when I did that, a few pieces of glass went into my wetsuit booties, causing a bunch of little cuts on my feet. Once outside, on the flattest portion of the roof, the three basket hoists went well. The girl first, then the mom, and then the dad.
When I got back in the helicopter, we closed the sliding door, and started making our way to the Clover Leaf interchange drop off point. Everything happened so fast, and I was pumped! The adrenaline wore off real quick once I looked back at and saw tears streaming down the girl’s face as she looked out the window. She was being held by her mom, and I gave them a few bottles of water. I was doing what I trained for and it was exciting. Reality set in when for me when I realized that real people with real heartbreaking stories were on the other end of these rescues. We dropped them off safely, and they each hugged me and the flight mechanic, AMT1 Bill Breiner. They waved smiles and said thank you to the pilots, LT Steve Foran, and LT Ryan Allen. They were a really nice family, and I often wonder how things turned out for them. I hope the best. But like almost all Katrina rescues for each Coast Guardsmen, we will likely never know.
3. What were the most difficult challenges and tasks you faced?
Each rescue was different from the last, with it’s own set of challenges and risks. Physically I was not concerned about not having the strength or endurance to complete any of them. I was all charged up on adrenaline and the desire to be Superman and rescue everyone, even though I was only a small factor in the grand scheme of things. However, I did encounter something that I was not expecting or prepared for. The initial days I, along with many other Rescue Swimmers, faced hostile and potentially dangerous crowds. They were in a state of panic and tried to bully their way into being rescued first. As the days went on, the scene and the mood changed. The more houses and apartments that I was hoisted to, I found increased resistance to leave from the people I was trying to help. Most had no water, food, or any plan. Some had multiple children, pets, and elderly family members inside as well. All of these places were miserably hot! My task quickly became convince them to leave. It was not easy, but I knew what was really out there, and they had no clue. They assumed the water was gonna just recede any day now, and all would go back to normal. Yet even after all this, some still wouldn’t leave. Leaving them behind was my biggest disappointment.
4. How would you explain your experiences during Hurricane Katrina to others? How was your experience different from other SAR missions?
Honestly, I don’t talk much about Katrina. As far as the Rescue Swimmer world goes, I was in the right place at the right time. There were many of my fellow Swimmers that never got the opportunity to be there. They each would have done the same thing given the chance. It has been 10 years, and there is not that many Rescue Swimmers still serving in the Coast Guard that were part of the Katrina rescue story. I am willing to share my experiences with the newer guys if they are willing to listen, but I never want them to think that I am bragging, because I don’t know if any of them will ever see a disaster of that scale in their careers. I feel humbled, lucky, and blessed that I was there.
As far as the difference between Katrina and other SAR missions, there is not much. Mostly because Katrina was multiple rescues; a family here, a guy and his dogs there, a few more people over there, and so on. Nonstop. Each one of these rescues would have been a big deal had it been a non-Katrina related rescue somewhere else. This is because the Coast Guard Aviation community prides itself on the Standardization of all aspects of SAR hoisting and training between each unit. I could fly with a pilot from Air Station San Francisco, a co-pilot from Miami, and a flight mechanic from Kodiak, but it wouldn’t matter. I could meet them for the first time 5 minutes before we fly, and feel like we have been flying together for years. This was very comforting to me, because the Katrina hoisting was mainly over a major metropolitan area, which is not something we routinely practice. Looking back, the Coast Guard’s standardized approach to aviation was the main reason we had an amazing 100% safety and success rate during Katrina. We shined.
5. What did you learn, as far as about yourself or the Coast Guard as a whole?
I learned that this type of work is what I was meant to do. I can honestly say that I would never make it in the office job world. Katrina humbled me, and reassured me that I made the right decision by joining the Coast Guard. When the time comes for me to retire and hang up my fins for good, I will look back on my career, and Katrina will be one of my most memorable and proud moments.
6. What’s your greatest accomplishment?
The greatest accomplishment in my life is simply how close I have remained with my family throughout my Coast Guard career. They still live in Virginia, and I have been stationed all over the United States; from Seattle, Savannah, Atlantic City, Elizabeth City, and now Miami. Even after 14 years, I still do get homesick. They have visited me at each station along the way, and I hate to see them leave each time. I often feel guilty because I have missed so much by being gone all this time, but they understand and support me the whole way. I guess I’m still just a little kid at heart, and want to make them proud.