PENSACOLA - The toughest thing about rescuing victims of Hurricane Katrina is being unable to get them all, say Navy helicopter crew members who plucked survivors stranded by floodwaters from rooftops in New Orleans.
The rescuers have had to leave people behind due to running low on fuel or daylight - it's too dangerous to pick people up at night - or sometimes simply being unable to find the survivors.
"There's a lot of people still in the houses who don't have the ability to get out," Lt. Bryce Kammermeyer said Thursday. "You don't see a lot of people on the roofs like you did two days ago, but there's still as many people because you see them at night with their flashlights."
Kammermeyer, 28, of Conroe, Texas, is a helicopter pilot at Pensacola Naval Air Station, a staging point for rescue and supply missions.
Chief Petty Officer James Swanson, 37, also of Conroe, and Petty Officer 1st Class Roland Dupras, 46, of Jacksonville Beach, were aboard a separate helicopter that picked up people stranded atop a three-story office building Wednesday. Both men are rescue swimmers stationed at Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville.
"It's overwhelming compared to the man-made disaster I just came from," said Dupras, who returned from Iraq in July. "It's much uglier."
While their helicopter hovered, Swanson and Dupras took turns helping people get hoisted aboard, giving priority to women, children, the elderly and the sick. "It was really hard to pick out the people that we had to take," Swanson said. "A lot of the elderly that we picked up were begging and pleading for us to go back and get their families. That was the hard part."
They saved seven people on one trip and five on another before running short on fuel and daylight, leaving nearly 30 behind.
"All of them were dehydrated," Swanson said. "The ones we talked to hadn't had any food or water for the last two days. They were surviving off one bottle of water ... each taking a capful."
The survivors had made their way to the building from a nearby apartment complex shortly before the storm made landfall.
Dupras said the air crews must be careful to avoid risks that could put them in need of rescuing themselves.
"You want to keep going and going and going, but you can't because you have your own limitations," he said. "We have to know when we have to stop."