Rescue crew assists Gulf Coast
By Kristie Linden, Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
It's almost been two months since Hurricane Katrina ripped the city of New Orleans, and most of the Gulf Coast, to shreds.
But for Guardian Angel Ambulance workers the event is not over yet.
Normally, Guardian Angel covers medical emergencies in Verona and other area towns. On Monday, Aug. 29, when Katrina hit land, the ambulance crews were asked to get on the road to lend a hand in New Orleans.
Five men, Carl Kent, Scott Snyder, Greg Magee, Justin Matesic and Brock Littleton boarded two ambulances reaching the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge by midday Tuesday.
The original group came back two weeks later, another group was sent to replace them and when Hurricane Rita struck on Sept. 24 two more trucks with eight more men headed south.
The first group lived in Baton Rouge with firefighters and EMTs from New Orleans and across the nation in tents sleeping on bunk beds. They used the showers in a gym across the street. Initially, men slept on floors in hallways until the camp was set up.
"The first thoughts in my head were, 'Are we ready to see the very worst life can throw at us?'" said Scott Snyder, EMT.
The moment Snyder will always remember is when he rescued a 7-month-old child who was unresponsive. Snyder said he exhausted every effort he had to keep the boy alive and by the time he handed the baby off to a doctor at the New Orleans Airport, the boy was breathing.
"I was able to help an innocent victim in all of this," said Snyder.
Greg Magee, EMT, showed up for his regular shift that Tuesday and saw several guys all packed up ready to go south and he asked to be allowed to go, too.
Most of the Guardian Angel workers who were involved in the hurricane recovery say the most difficult thing to be a part of was rescuing people who were stranded on the I-10 causeway.
"When we first pulled up we saw people who had been there for three or four days with no food," said Magee. "One of the hardest things was that someone in the crowd might not have an immediate medical problem, but still needed to go to hospital. We couldn't take them; we had to do what we were told to do.
"Reports of shootings and looting were exaggerated. There was too much negative attention. Everywhere we went people were helping each other. I had to tell one man we couldn't take him because we had a critical patient, he shook my hand said he understood."
Brock Littleton, EMT, was at the causeway pulling people from boats to shuttle them to the triage center when he saw a family rowing in a little aluminum boat with three or four children.
"They were all shivering and hypothermic. The woman said 'my husband is still on the other side,' but the workers wouldn't let her back in the water," said Littleton.
He could see where the man was waiting for rescue so Littleton talked the pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter to fly to this man to save him.
Carl Kent, paramedic, said the City of New Orleans ambulance crews were amazing. They had lost their stations and equipment, some had lost their own homes and had nothing but the clothes on their backs but they kept on working.
Kent said he feels like he left his second family behind when he returned north.
"In a year or two we'll have an EMS reunion and we'll put our own float together for Mardi Gras," said Kent, who honeymooned in New Orleans 11 years ago. This rescue mission was the first time he'd returned to the city.
Justin Matesic, EMT, said he was pretty excited to go to New Orleans and put his skills to good use.
"When we first got there I was scared. People were talking about rioting and shootings.
"It was not like that. Everyone we took was so grateful. It was so gratifying to help these people in total despair, absolutely at the lowest point in their lives," said Matesic.
One night he responded to a fire call with New Orleans and New York City firefighters. Matesic and his grandfather have both been firemen in the past, and the chance to sit alongside men from New York City was overwhelming.
"I hold them in such high regard, a lot of people in our field do. I think of them as kind of an icon. It was unique to sit and talk with those guys," said Matesic.
The Guardian Angel group all said they felt like the media didn't completely portray the intense effort given by the rescue workers. They also felt like there wasn't enough emphasis on just how devastated the victims were.
"TV didn't show how cruel this was to them," said Snyder. "It showed rescues, but not people with no homes, no families because they were gone. It was exhausting in every meaning of the word. You had to push to the limit and push past it. You can't think of yourself."
The men want to make sure people understand their story in the hopes that future disasters will be dealt with in a better way.
"Hell was inside the doors of the New Orleans Airport where there were bodies all over the floor as far as the eye could see," said Littleton. "The green tagged were walking wounded, yellow wristbands were more severe, red tags were critical and the black tag is only supposed to be used on people who are dead.
"There were people with black tags who were waiting to die. We kept trying to take the black tags off and get them well enough to get a red tag, but we'd later find them retagged with black."
Matesic sums up the experience by saying he felt great about what his team was able to go down there and do.
"I'm just glad we had the chance to go down there and be a part of this," said Matesic. "Day to day we impact people's lives but we're not as sure of the impact as we were down there. The smallest things we could do had such a dramatic impact in their lives. It's not too often you have the opportunity to affect people like that."