As an elderly woman was hoisted into a Coast Guard helicopter in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey last year, she surveyed the devastation that had befallen her rural Texas community. She then reached toward the sky in prayer.
Lt. Kyle Murphy, a Columbia River pilot, remembers the moment even more than the countless obstacles he and other crew members faced during the disaster.
“I can still see the people that we picked up. I can see their faces,” Murphy said.
Murphy and members of the two Air Station Astoria aircrews who responded to the hurricane were awarded Oct. 29 with the Air Medal. Other recipients of the medal, a military decoration that recognizes acts of heroism and achievement during aerial flights, include astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
“It’s a little surreal,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Allison Dowell, an avionics electrical technician. “It’s kind of one of those things everybody jokes about when you’re going out on a case, like, ‘Oh, this is going to be the Air Medal.’”
Dowell has been in the Coast Guard for six years, but was only certified for hurricane response seven weeks before Harvey.
“There are people that go 20 years without getting, you know, a good operation hoist, so it was such an honor to be chosen to go do that,” Dowell said.
The medal recipients also included Lt. Tripp Haas, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Rapp and Petty Officer 2nd Class Dan Wilson.
Haas was a pilot, first navigating hurricane-force winds and then, after the storm subsided, heavy air traffic. Pilots used tricky landings, including one on a highway, and hovered near large objects, such as a downed power pole. His crew’s rescues included two women who were in labor.
Haas recalls the vast number of people who needed help. The Coast Guard rescued more than 10,500 people during the hurricane, which killed 88.
“If I could have had an unlimited amount of gas and an unlimited amount of time, we could have done that for two or three days straight,” Haas said.
Wilson, a rescue swimmer, saved 30 people from heavily polluted water and assisted 59 more. One rescue involved a 400-pound man trapped in the upstairs part of a house. Wilson got the man out of the home and moved him about 200 feet away before waving for a helicopter.
In addition to the woman whose face he remembers distinctly, Murphy’s crew rescued five other elderly people.
“To get the award, to get the level of the award, is certainly special,” Murphy said, “but anybody would have done it if they were in our shoes.”