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Air Force Reservist with Santa Maria Roots Searching for Girl He Saved in Hurricane Katrina

Mike Maroney, captured in an iconic photo with the youngster during the rescue 10 years ago, posts a video to YouTube that goes viral

In September 2005, a young Hurricane Katrina survivor hugs her rescuer, then-Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney, who grew up in Santa Maria, after she was relocated to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana. “I take her up and she’s like having a blast,” Maroney says in a video he has posted on YouTube. “She’s like, ‘I can see my house, there’s my school.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, this is awesome. This little girl is so happy.’”
In September 2005, a young Hurricane Katrina survivor hugs her rescuer, then-Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney, who grew up in Santa Maria, after she was relocated to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana. “I take her up and she’s like having a blast,” Maroney says in a video he has posted on YouTube. “She’s like, ‘I can see my house, there’s my school.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, this is awesome. This little girl is so happy.’” (Veronica Pierce / Air Force photo)

An Air Force Reserve pararescueman who grew up in Santa Maria is trying to find a girl he saved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, a rescue captured in an iconic photo of the pink-shirted youngster hugging Mike Maroney as he helped her off a helicopter.

In his YouTube video posted March 11, Maroney said the “super-duper cool little girl” he estimated to be 4 or 5 years old was with her family of approximately seven when he was lowered from a helicopter between some trees and power lines to hoist them to safety.

“I take her up and she’s like having a blast,” Maroney said in the video. “She’s like, ‘I can see my house, there’s my school.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, this is awesome. This little girl is so happy.’”

Pararescuemen — also called pararescue jumpers or PJs for short — are part of a special forces unit with the motto “That Others May Live.” They are trained in emergency medical tactics as well as in combat and survival skills. The career field was created to pluck pilots downed behind enemy lines, but PJs also perform assorted humanitarian missions.

The girl was so happy although her house and everything had been wiped out, Maroney recalled.

When her mother looked out the helicopter, she broke down upon seeing the devastation below. The small girl consoled her mom, saying, “We’re safe.”

Once the helicopter landed, he helped the girl off the aircraft, a moment captured Sept. 7, 2005, by Air Force combat camera photographer and then-Airman 1st Class Veronica Pierce.

“She wraps me up in this hug,” Maroney said in the video. “Everything bad melts away. All that matters is a little girl is just giving me this hug and I’m just in heaven.”

The moment came after Maroney had battled a stomach ailment from accidentally swallowing contaminated water and had participated in frustrating rescues that left him disheartened.

“That is one of the top five hugs of my life,” Maroney said in the video. “Actually, if nothing ever happened again, that hug made pararescue, my trip to New Orleans, my career, that hug made it all worthwhile.”

The iconic picture with their infectious smiles later was used on “coins” used by military members in war zones to buy items from the commissaries there.

“If she hadn’t had her family with her I would have kept her,” Maroney said, adding he’s known among his colleagues for handing out candy to children when they are deployed to places such as Africa, the Philippines and other locales.

Each year since then, Maroney wondered about the girl, and recently posted a 20-minute YouTube video that has gone viral. It had received more than 20,600 views by Wednesday.

“We had spoken about it for a long time,” Orcutt resident Wes Maroney said of his son’s curiosity about the girl.

Now a Texas resident, the 40-year-old son of Wes and Rose Maroney holds a civilian job teaching new pararescuemen and still serves in the career field as a master sergeant with the Air Force Reserve. He left active duty service in 2006.

He attended St. Joseph and Righetti high schools and earned an associate of arts from Allan Hancock College.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Wes Maroney, who retired after 35 years with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and now works as chief of the Allan Hancock College Police Department.

Wes Maroney was surprised his son’s quest went viral. Mike Maroney reportedly did eight interviews Wednesday and has been assigned an Air Force public affairs representative to help him manage the requests.

The video has sparked several news stories across the nation and even a request for an interview with a Canadian radio station. Stories appeared on People, ABC News, Air Force Times and other outlets. The hashtag, #FindKatrinaGirl, reportedly trended on Twitter for a time.

“I did not think anything like this would take off,” said Wes Maroney, an Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In the video, Mike Maroney asked that anyone who knows Montecito resident Oprah Winfrey, a former talk show who now has her own network, plead with her to help him reconnect with the girl.

The Ellen DeGeneres show reportedly has reached out to have Maroney appear on an episode.

As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, Maroney told his dad that neither the parents nor other relatives had come forward yet.

“I would love to see how she turned out,” Mike Maroney, who is the father of two boys, said in the video. “Because I think that little girl had a bright future and was going places.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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