It was a heartening moment captured amid overwhelming bleakness: A 3-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor wrapped her chubby little arms round an Air Force pararescue jumper who had rappelled into New Orleans to save the girl’s family from floodwaters.
The 2005 photograph showing a toddler with pigtails and an ear-to-ear grin holding tight to Staff Sgt. Michael Maroney was soon everywhere — plastered on Burger King placemats, AT&T phone cards, a magazine cover.
For many people, including Maroney, it represented hope at a time of total devastation.
“I was a single father trying to raise two boys. I had just gotten back from Afghanistan, and New Orleans was under water,” Maroney, now 40, told The Washington Post. “When she hugged me, everything went away. There were no problems in that moment. That meant everything to me.”
“It had been such a rough week; when she wrapped me up in that hug, I was in la-la land,” he said earlier this year. “Nothing else existed.”
Maroney never got the child’s name — but he has never stopped trying to find her.
Now, he has.
LeShay Brown, now 13, lives with her family in Waveland, Miss., about 60 miles from New Orleans.
She and her relatives plan to reconnect with Maroney in a few weeks, according to People magazine.
“I can’t wait to meet her to tell her how important she is,” Maroney told the magazine. “In my line of work, it doesn’t usually turn out happily. This hug, this moment, was like — everybody I’ve ever saved, that was the thank you.”
It was September 2005 when Maroney was sent to New Orleans to find survivors in Katrina’s aftermath. LeShay’s family had been waiting about a week to be rescued, and the young girl soon found herself in Maroney’s MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter.
She planted a bear-hug on him — and it was captured by Air Force photographer Veronica Pierce.
LeShay has since said she doesn’t remember the hug, but those who saw it will never forget it.
“I was crying because I was scared … that was the first time I was on a helicopter, the first time I was on a plane and the first time I ever left New Orleans,” LeShay’s mother, Shawntrell Brown, told People magazine. “The helicopter had open doors, so I looked out and you could just see all the water over everything, and it was just too much for me, so she was comforting me.”
“It’s okay,” LeShay told her mother at the time, according to Air Force Times. “We’re safe. Don’t worry.”
Maroney is now an Air Force Reservist who instructs pararescue jumpers in San Antonio, and for years since the rescue — and hug — he has been wondering about the young girl and where she ended up. In 2005, he posted the picture on social media and has been looking for her ever since.
In 2010, he said he even penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey looking for help, but he never got a reply.
It wasn’t until this February that the story started gaining traction, when 16-year-old Andrew Goard from Waterford, Mich., learned about Maroney’s story and launched the #FindKatrinaGirl campaign. The next month, Air Force Times wrote about Maroney’s quest to find the girl, and the campaign went viral.
“I would love to get another hug and see how she’s doing,” Maroney told The Post at the time, noting that he still had the photo up in his home. “I’d love her to know that there isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her.”
The news eventually made its way back to LeShay Brown.
“The whole neighborhood told us they saw LeShay on the news, and everybody told us someone was looking for her,” her mother told People. After she saw the photo, Shawntrell Brown said: “I knew that it was her.”
LeShay’s friend tracked down Maroney’s 13-year-old son on social media and passed along a message: LeShay wanted to hear from the airman.
“I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time,” LeShay told the magazine.
Maroney told People that he knew the odds of finding her were long.
“I figured one in a trillion,” he said. “I thought it never would have happened.”
Now that it has, he said, he can’t quite believe it.
“Words are failing me,” he told The Post. “I can’t even express how I feel.”
This post has been updated.