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Airman With Santa Maria Roots Identifies Girl in Iconic Hurricane Katrina Photo

Former Air Force pararescue jumper identifies 'Katrina Girl' whom he helped rescue from Gulf Coast hurricane's aftermath a decade ago

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.
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. (Veronica Pierce / Air Force photo)

A decade after Mike Maroney received a hug from a girl he hoisted to safety in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — a moment captured in an iconic photo — the retired special ops airman has finally learned her name.

Maroney, who grew up in the Santa Maria Valley and served for 18 years as a pararescueman in the Air Force, told People magazine and Wednesday announced on his YouTube channel that the pink-shirted girl with ponytails has been identified.

In September 2005, a military photographer captured the moment of the airman and the girl hugging, both smiling broadly as Maroney helped her off the helicopter after he and colleagues got the youngster and her family off a rooftop.

The girl, LaShay Brown, is now 13 years old and lives in Waveland, Mississippi, her mother Shawntrell Brown told People. 

Maroney and the girl’s mother have talked on the phone and he hopes to meet them in person soon, with plans to give her copies of the photo that appeared in newspapers and military “coin” used for money in the war zones. 

“It’s a pretty cool thing,” Maroney, the son of Wes and Rose Maroney of Orcutt, said in a video posted on YouTube.

“Words are failing me at this moment to explain what I’m feeling so I’m pretty 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.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, military members responded to help rescue families trapped by flooding.

Maroney recalled repeatedly being lowered between some trees and power lines to retrieve the girl and her family of approximately seven to hoist them into the helicopter so they could be taken to safety.

Amid the hectic pace of rescues, the quick hug had a long-lasting effect on Maroney who now lives in Texas.

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

Earlier this year, word of his efforts to find and reunite with the girl went viral in the spring, but failed to turn up any clues about her identity. The effort spawned a social media hashtag of #findkatrinagirl.

Eventually, a connection between the two families was made via social media, he said, adding he hopes to meet the family in a couple of weeks.

This summer Maroney, who was medically retired from the military in July, met with producers and a director interested in making a movie about pararescue jumpers’ 21 days of Katrina, his parents said.

“I never call myself a hero,” Maroney said, adding that reading stories about him make view his actions in a different and humble way.

The true heroes, he said, include people like the Air Force combat controllers — Capt. Matthew D. Roland and Staff Sgt. Forrest B. Sable — who died of wounds received during an attack on their vehicle in Afghanistan.

“I think I’m just a dude who does my job and, you know, likes helping people,” Maroney said.

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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