With the wind whipping around him, Air Force pararescue jumper Alex clipped his waist harness onto a cord, braced his feet on the open doorway of the Pave Hawk helicopter and pushed backward into the void above New Orleans for the umpteenth time.
He dangled in the air, spinning slowly, as he descended about 60 feet alongside a three-story brick housing project north of the Louisiana Superdome. The pilot, Capt. Adam, kept the rescue helicopter hovering precariously close to the building, which is surrounded by floodwaters.
Alex landed gingerly on the roof of a dark-blue Chevrolet Suburban adrift next to the building. Then, in an agile, Spider-Man-like maneuver, he leapt from the car onto a nearby balcony and disappeared, going to the aid of a woman they spotted there moments earlier.
Since Hurricane Katrina struck, Sr. Airman Alex, 21, of New York, and 450 other Air Force Special Operations search-and-rescue personnel have pulled about 3,000 New Orleans residents from the flood, including as many as 180 in a single helicopter sortie. Their helicopters are equipped with flares, infrared sensors for searching, and hoists that can lift up to 600 pounds. The Air Force operation, involving 185 aircraft, has rescued and evacuated more than 19,000 people from the city so far, according to Capt. Tom Montgomery, a spokesman for the Air Force Special Operations Command.
Most members of Adam's team have deployed to Afghanistan, where they extracted U.S. troops attacked by Taliban forces as well as wounded Afghans. From their base in Nevada, they also have saved stranded skiers and lost hikers, and even have plucked people from the Grand Canyon. But the New Orleans catastrophe has tested their peacetime skills as never before.
"This is what we live for," said flight engineer Staff Sgt. Peter, who mans the specialized hoist that lifts the flood victims and their rescuers to safety. Like the other team members, Peter spoke on the condition that his last name not be used because of the classified nature of his military assignments.
Lifting off from Jackson, Miss., at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the rescue crew headed south over the storm-ravaged woodlands of Mississippi.
Once above New Orleans, the Pave Hawk skimmed over wide swaths of neighborhoods still deep in black water streaked with oil. Cars, jumbled like Matchbox toys, lay on roofs and treetops. A dead man was sprawled face down on the top of a car floating in the water, his body bloated in the sun. The rescue men noted the location of the body and flew on, in search of the living.
Two men in white T-shirts, stranded on a dry strip of an overpass with a dog, waved their arms at the helicopter, then raised their hands to their mouths as if drinking. Tech. Sgt. Brian, a pararescue jumper from Arcadia, La., unclipped the tether that kept him from falling out the open helicopter door, clipped himself onto the hoist, and pushed out carrying a bottle of water.
On the ground, he told the men they would have to leave if they wanted a regular supply. But the two opted to stay. "Those dudes want to live on the highway," Brian said, shaking his head.
Some stragglers are dangerous. One pararescue jumper landed in what he discovered was a methamphetamine lab and faced a man holding a knife, Adam said. "There's an incredible amount of drug paraphernalia" in homes in the city, he said.
In recent days, finding people has become more difficult. Searchers believe the majority of those trapped inside New Orleans have either perished, been rescued or chosen -- recklessly in the minds of the airmen -- to try to survive until normalcy returns. As a result, the search is spreading out to areas on the outskirts of New Orleans.
The Pave Hawk veered southeast of New Orleans toward the Gulf of Mexico, passing huge barges and platforms washed inland, and shipping containers scattered like so many colored wooden blocks.
Flying over St. Bernard, a town surrounded by floodwaters, the co-pilot, Capt. Jeff, 44, of Helena, Mont., suddenly spotted a figure in the doorway of a house waving a white cloth. "It's a lady, and she wants out!" he said as they drew closer.
Instantly, the men executed a flurry of rapid decisions, fluidly communicating their location, altitude and any obstacles below. Alex went down on the hoist. He came up minutes later holding a woman wearing blond pigtails and a blue T-shirt, sobbing in his arms.
A few minutes later, Brian came up with the woman's fiance, who is disabled from hip and leg injuries.
The two New Orleans natives cried and hugged each other as the helicopter sped forward. Over the whir of helicopter blades, bits of their story seeped out.
"The water came up so fast Monday, all we had time to do was jump in Bill's boat!" said the woman, Vicki Ann Campe, wiping her face with a cloth.
Campe and her fiance, William John Brossette, lived on the boat for days with their six dogs and Brossette's parents. They put out buckets to catch the rain for bathing. But their legs were covered with sores and rashes from being in the water. "It was up to my chest," said Campe. The water slowly receded, but the coastal neighborhood was still an island surrounded by water, making evacuation difficult.
Brossette's parents, who have heart ailments and had run out of medicine, were evacuated Monday.
The couple was distraught over leaving the dogs -- three Chihuahuas, two poodles including a blind one named Sandy, and a mutt named Crazy. "We must have left out at least 100 bowls of food and water," Campe said.
The Pave Hawk touched down at New Orleans International Airport, and Alex and Brian hopped out to help the couple alight. Campe, tears again filling her eyes, gave Alex a big hug. He smiled, sheepishly.