Destruction and heartbreak surrounded the pararescueman, along with the rest of New Orleans, during the first week of September 2005. No matter how many people Staff Sgt. Michael Maroney pulled from rooftops, trees and the flooded waters of the Crescent City, there was no escaping the sickening sights and sounds during those 14-hour days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That was before he received an enthusiastic embrace from a little pigtailed girl he pulled from waist-level water into his HH-60G Pave Hawk about a week after the hurricane. When Maroney delivered the girl and her family to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, she leaped up and threw her arms around him. The embrace and the girl’s infectious smile were captured in a photo that later went viral. That moment with the unknown child, who later became known as “Katrina Girl,” changed everything in Maroney’s mind. In late August, after almost a decade of searching, Maroney learned the girl is 13-year-old LeShay Brown, who lives with her mother in Waveland, Mississippi, as first reported by PEOPLE Magazine on Sept. 2. He’s eagerly anticipating a reunion with her and her mother, Shawntrell Brown, in New Orleans in late September, a meeting he calls a “one in a trillion” shot. A friend of LeShay’s sent a copy of the viral photo of that hug, along with another picture in a clipping of a newspaper article published in Tennessee, where the family was sheltered after the rescue, to Maroney’s 13-year-old son, Christopher.
“I’m a very optimistic person, but I’m also a realist,” Maroney said. “Things don’t always happen the way you want them to, so I try to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. It was like it was never going to happen. But when I saw the picture, I knew it was her. I’ve been speechless ever since.” Maroney is now a master sergeant assigned to the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. However, he’s training future pararescuemen in San Antonio while he works on completing his medical retirement at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. When Katrina struck the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, Maroney was a pararescueman deployed with the 58th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He had armed himself with Beanie Babies to comfort the children he knew he would encounter in the rescue effort. In a career Mahoney calls the “world devastation tour,” he counts the people he’s rescued at 304, but LeShay stands out above them all, partly because she was about the same age as one of his sons. Once the Pave Hawk delivered LeShay and her family to the airport, they joined many other residents who were displaced by the hurricane and were taken to various locations. Maroney never asked her name, but also never forgot her smile or the unbridled joy she showed in the midst of all of the turmoil and tragedy. Just a couple of months before Katrina, Mahoney returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, where he and his fellow pararescuemen picked up nothing but bodies for 22 days. By the time he’d found the girl’s family, he’d experienced similar emotions as he tried to find people he could save, especially on that particular day. Years later, the little girl stood out in his memory, not only because of the happy ending at the airport, but also because for once, someone Mahoney rescued was able to say express appreciation. Even though hearing those two words isn’t the reason Mahoney faces the dangerous work of a pararescueman, hearing them — especially from the mouth of a child – was particularly meaningful. “Most of the time I drop people off, they’re unconscious,” he said. “They’re blown up or shot, so they’re not really cognizant. She made up for all of the thank-you’s I never got.” Maroney carried LeShay from the ground to the Pave Hawk. As they ascended on the hoist, she pointed out her home and school from the air. Once in the helicopter, LeShay consoled her mother, who was apparently frightened of the helicopter ride, by rubbing her back and telling her, “It’s OK, mom. We’re safe now.” “When we landed at New Orleans International Airport, I picked her up to take her off the Pave Hawk, and she wraps me up in that big hug,” Maroney said. “All of the troubles and problems going on were just melted away.
“It could have been five or 10 seconds. But that hug has lasted 10 years now. It was the perfect moment, what I needed to recharge my batteries after seeing New Orleans destroyed and picking up all of those people after all of that destruction. That one gesture from her gave me enough energy to make it through the rest of my time. If I never did anything else the rest of my life, that hug made it worthwhile.” The family returned to New Orleans from the shelter in Tennessee, but moved to Mississippi a few months ago. Both mother and daughter seemed surprised the pararescueman who saved them spent so much of the past decade thinking about them. “I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time,” LeShay told PEOPLE. “I’ve barely seen any of the pictures!” LeShay doesn’t remember the rescue, although she does recall much about life in the shelter after FEMA moved them to Tennessee. Her mother remembers it all, especially since it was her first helicopter ride, as well as her first trip out of New Orleans. About five years after Katrina, Maroney left active duty for the Reserve after deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that photo of the one memorable rescue in New Orleans remained on the wall in his home. Now that he’s finally found the girl who for about a decade was only known as “Katrina Girl” by much of the country, he’s grateful for many people who helped get the word that finally reached the family’s neighborhood in a small Mississippi town.
“If I can thank everybody who helped look for her, give everybody a hug, say thank you to every single person who helped me, I would do it,” Maroney said. “It blows me away, the outpouring of love and kindness people have given, and shows that it’s not about color, it’s about people. If we can come together in a horrible moment like Katrina, I wonder why we can’t come together now. I hope this picture can show we’re all Americans and can find things that pull us together.” Maroney has had a decade to think about what he would say to her if he were to ever see her again. Finally, he will soon get that chance. When Maroney and his two sons make the eight-and-a-half drive from San Antonio to New Orleans, he plans to show LeShay and her mother some of the many articles and videos that have been produced about them. His main goal is to emphasize how important she has been in his life for the past decade. “(Shawntrell) and her daughter have left an indelible mark engraved on my heart,” he said. “It hurts me to know that people are suffering, but what’s beautiful is they’re fine, they’re happy living their lives and aren’t letting things get to them. There is such strength and resiliency in that family. If I can help them, I really want to help them because they really helped me.”