They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the image of Staff Sgt. Michael Maroney bear-hugging a young survivor of Hurricane Katrina is overwhelmingly about one: joy.
The U.S. airman was with an elite Air Force pararescue unit when he helped hoist her to safety from her family’s destroyed home in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.The storm had roared ashore in Louisiana on Aug. 29, and the little girl’s family was still waiting for help about a week later, as the flood waters slowly receded.
Maroney, now 40, had spent more the last week rappelling repeatedly from an MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter into devastation around New Orleans, trying to help whoever he could. Some people were beyond saving. Then there was the small girl, perhaps 5, who threw her arms around him at New Orleans International Airport after he and his fellow airmen dropped off her and her family members unscathed.
“It had been such a rough week, when she wrapped me up in that hug, I was in la-la land,” Maroney said. “Nothing else existed. I was just loving that hug.”
As Air Force Times first reported Sunday night, however, Maroney never learned the family’s name. He has tried repeatedly to find them through social media, but the effort has come up empty for nearly 10 years. The picture was taken by an Air Force photographer, Veronica Pierce.
After the newspaper published Maroney’s story, the effort quickly went viral. The hashtag #FindKatrinaKid was born, and the photo was shared thousands of times online. Maroney, now a master sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, expressed excitement on Twitter:
— mike m (@mikem3672) March 22, 2015
Here’s some of the reaction:
— Kelli Brooke (@BrownGirl478) March 23, 2015
— David Kehoe (@mrpeabody89) March 23, 2015
— Tina Winsett (@tmwinsett) March 23, 2015
The girl would likely be 15 or 16 now, perhaps in high school. Maroney said he has always wondered about her, but didn’t try to find her for a while because he and many of his fellow pararescuemen tend to focus on getting those they help to the hospital, and not think about afterward.
Maroney has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan three times, and to the Philippines once. He is closing in on getting a medical retirement from the Air Force, and still has his photo with the girl up in his home.
“I would love to get another hug and see how she’s doing,” he said of the mystery girl. “I’d love her to know that there isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her.”