NEW ORLEANS, LA (WAFB) - The search and rescue mission conducted by the US Coast Guard in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was its largest since the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.
Guardsmen are credited with rescuing more than 33,000 people, with more than 24,000 of those rescues occurring by air. The US Air Force is credited with rescuing an additional 4,000-plus from Katrina's floodwaters.
Nearly 10 years after Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, amazing stories are still emerging from the storm. For Sgt. Mike Maroney of the US Air Force, there's one rescue in New Orleans that stands out. The moment was captured in a remarkable picture and he now wants the public's help in trying to reunite with the little girl he saved.
It's a picture that speaks without the need for words. It's a moment of unbridled joy embedded in a time of incredible human suffering. It's the moment a little girl realized she and her family were finally safe after being hoisted from Katrina's floodwaters by a brave Air Force pararescueman. Maroney still gets a gleam in his eyes when talking about it nearly 10 years later.
"When she gave me that hug, I kept a journal, a diary or whatever and it writes, 'Got the most amazing hug from a little girl today,'" Maroney said.
How big was that hug for Maroney? It's an embrace that's never lost its grip and one that has him hoping for a reunion with the unnamed little girl. However, there's a problem. No one seems to know what happened to the little girl.
"So, I've been looking for her for years. That hug was very…it was a monumental moment for me. I call it one of the top five hugs of my entire life and to quantify that, I judge it towards like the first time one of my sons came up to me and said, 'You know, I love you, Dad,' and gave me a hug," Maroney explained.
Each year around Katrina's anniversary, Maroney would post the picture on Facebook with the hope of generating some leads and each year, it went largely unnoticed until a few months ago when a high school student started circulating it on Twitter using the hashtags #findkatrinagirl and #findkatrinakid. The picture has since gone viral.
What are you hoping for if you are able to reunite with the girl?
"I just want to know how she's doing and let her know that she has impacted my life in a million different ways and they were all good," Maroney added.
Maroney was asked if he remembered what the girl said in the moments before the picture was taken, but that moment wasn't about words, it was about that unforgettable hug.
"When I went to help her off the helicopter, she wrapped me up in that hug and you know, the entire world stopped. It just, I wasn't even on the planet on that moment. I was wrapped up in that hug and just happy," Maroney said.