(TNS) - Rain pummeled the sides of Justin Pacheco’s rescue chopper as he approached the freeway with six passengers on board — cold and tired, but alive. He eased the MH-60 Tango onto the south Texas thoroughfare — steady, steady — until finally the aircraft’s wheels touched down.
The U.S. Coast Guard pilot paused the helicopter while the passengers disembarked. A long-haired man carried a white plastic bag stocked with precious belongings, while another gentlemen toted a cat carrier and others walked away with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
A few moments later he was airborne, headed back into the fury of Hurricane Harvey. The Category 4 storm made landfall Aug. 25 in southeast Texas with 130 mph winds, destroying countless homes and vehicles, and dropping up to 65 inches of rain.
Pacheco aided in the rescue efforts following both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and is set to deploy to the Caribbean next week in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
“It’s pretty powerful to take a machine like that, show up and be part of the chain of events to help someone when they are in a time of desperation,” Pacheco said. “There’s no better job in the world.”
Pacheco and his crew, including a flight medic, another pilot and two rescue swimmers, saved 52 people from the floodwaters in Texas — including three pregnant women, one of whom who was in active labor.
“It was honestly pretty straightforward,” he said, of the team’s rescue strategy. “We went to the places of major flooding and started seeing people on roofs and people getting swept down flooded streets.”
They helped as many as they could, filling the helicopter’s belly with seven to eight passengers at a time and depositing the rescued on local freeways or at hospitals before looping back for more.
From the air, Pacheco witnessed the almost apocalyptic aftermath in Houston. Thousands upon thousands of homes were submerged beneath the flood waters and waves crested the freeway linking the metropolis to nearby Beaumont.
“One of the crazy parts was the animals,” he added.
Pacheco recalled a herd of roughly 100 cows that were strung out nose to tail, headed for higher ground with water up to their backs. And during one rescue, Pacheco witnessed a giant snake swim out from a trailer home, a mere 10 feet away from the rescue swimmer.
There were other animals he couldn’t save — like the dogs whose owners had somehow gotten them on top of their roof, but were too large to fit inside the aircraft.
“You’re there to help as many people as you can and you do your best,” he said.
It’s one of the hard truths of rescue — sometimes, people get left behind.
He remembers flying by an elderly couple in Texas who were standing in water up to their necks.
“All I saw was a little tiny white handkerchief waving at us out the front door,” Pacheco said.
But his aircraft was already fully loaded. They had a baby on board and were en route to a local hospital. He marked the couple’s location, but was never able to find them again.
“It’s not the first time you’re in that situation and it won’t be the last time … if you [focus] on it too much,you’re not effective the rest of the time in your aircraft,” he said. “Hopefully another aircraft came by and saw them.”
On occasion, Pacheco would receive a specific assignment, as was the case for a pregnant woman in labor.
He knew her address and that she was holed up in an attic, but that was it.
Flood waters had reached the eaves of homes by the time they got the call, so finding street numbers and names in a sea of identical houses was difficult. The crew eventually located the correct residence, and pulled the woman and her four children to safety.
“It’s a pretty traumatic moment to think, for any passenger, to come out of their house with a 54-foot-long helicopter hovering over them and we tell them to get into a basket that’s partially submerged under flood waters,” Pacheco said.
They hoisted her 100 feet in the air, amid her contractions, and notified the hospital of their impending arrival.
“She was a pretty happy camper to get out of there,” he said.
It’s moments like that, that drew Pacheco to military service.
After 9/11, he joined the Navy and earned his pilot’s wings in 2008. In the years to follow, Pacheco had six open-water search and rescues in Guam and 29 combat medevacs in Iraq during his three-year tour. In December of 2016, he made the switch to the Coast Guard and has since been a part of 57 rescues — including those in recent the hurricanes — and interdicted 113 suspected migrants.
“I got the search-and-rescue bug and couldn’t really let it go,” Pacheco said.
A month and half after his Coast Guard training was complete, the hurricanes came.
And unlike the Navy, this time, he was tasked with flying straight toward them.
Pacheco remembers Harvey as a “giant dark swirling wall.”
It was the rain that made being airborne a challenge, especially as they entered the dense skyline of Houston to drop off rescued passengers.
“You couldn’t see the towers and power lines, and honestly the other rescue craft out there,” Pacheco said. “That’s where it starts to get spooky.”
After two days of flying in Texas, Pacheco was able to return home to Clearwater, Florida. The Coast Guard has time limitations for pilots to prevent fatigue. Crews are only permitted to be in the air for between six and 12 hours, depending on the severity of the conditions. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to step back from the action.
“Nobody’s looking to go home and rest. We all want to be in our aircraft doing our jobs,” Pacheco said. “There’s a lot of adrenaline — this is why I came to the Coast Guard, is to do stuff like this and to be part of that search-and-rescue mission. You’re tired, without a doubt, but there’s really no other place you want to be.”
A few days later, Pacheco geared up for Irma. His crew received orders for what would prove to be a difficult mission.
A 75-foot fishing boat with at least two on board was battling 20- to 30-foot waves and was less than two hours from sinking near Dry Tortugas, and small group of islands 100 miles off Florida’s southwestern coast.
Before they could launch to such a distant spot, Pacheco needed to know he had a place to land. But the Florida Keys, where he’d hoped to find dry ground, were virtually destroyed. And to complicate matters further, communication lines were down.
Before they were able to get off the ground, the first mate on the ship drowned, along with his dog.
“You can’t get everyone,” Pacheco said.
Next week, he’s headed back for more — this time in the Caribbean.
He can’t say exactly when or where he’ll be going, but wherever he goes, there will be work to be done.
And that’s what keeps him going — one rescue at a time.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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