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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: AST3 Sara Faulkner, USCG

Interviewer: PA3 Susan Blake
Date of Interview: 4 October 2005
Place: Coast Guard Air Station Mobile



A USCG helicopter deploys a rescue swimmerAbstract:

AST3 Sara Faulkner (ATC Mobile)
(rescue swimmer)
Interview date: 4 OCT 05
Time: 27:01 min

AST3 Faulkner was recognized as one of the female heroes of the hurricane by Glamour magazine in a Nov. 2, 2005 ceremony in New York City. She was part of an H-65 evacuation crew that flew to Jacksonville, Fla., before the hurricane. After the hurricane hit, the crew was notified to move farther west, so they flew to Panama City where they refueled and thought they would be on standby. Instead, they were told to get airborne immediately because the CG had already received 100 distress calls and people were dying. The crew flew into the tail end of the hurricane as they made their way to ATC Mobile. Once there, they were relieved and another crew immediately went to NOLA. Faulkner flew four missions, with at least 52 hoists. She had two medevac hoists in Mississippi the day after the hurricane, followed by 48 hoists on Wednesday and two on Thursday. She would confer in advance with the crew to determine the rescue plan, and once Faulkner was on the ground they would use hand signals, which were particularly hard to see with her gloved hands when she was obscured by balconies – the flight mechanics would just get a glimpse of her wrist. On Wednesday, she hoisted 25 off of a second story balcony, followed by about 25 hoists in deep water at the same complex’s tennis court. She had concerns about entering the foul water but didn’t hesitate because the evacuees hadn’t hesitated. She used a “quick strop” – a strap on her hook – to conduct the hoists because it was the quickest way. Her most useful training was the assertiveness training she received at rescue swimmer school, which enabled her to exercise her authority to assign who she was evacuating first. Her most memorable rescue was from a second-story balcony. As Faulkner began straddling the balcony, a woman came forward and thrust her baby into Faulkner’s arms, essentially dangling the baby over the balcony. Faulkner had no way to secure an infant and could only grip it tightly as she was hoisted, spinning on the way up. Once in the helo, she checked the baby over to be sure she hadn’t crushed it. Faulkner conducted three more infant hoists, and after the first, they weren’t quite as scary. A male evacuee at the tennis court helped her organize everyone and he knew women and children should go first, he went last and asked, “Did I tell you I love you?” Some of the evacuees seemed surprised – even pleased – that she was a female rescue swimmer, but no one commented on it. Most of the evacuees she hoisted were taken to the “Cloverleaf” at I-10. 

Quote: “The first balcony we went to we specifically picked because we saw women and children there. So it took me awhile to get lowered down and in position … and there’s—boom—baby in my arms. Our rescue devices are too small for babies, so I had to hold him in my bare arms, and just the look on the mother’s face …”

Click here to access a video clip of this rescue, narrated by AST3 Faulkner.


Q: Please state your first name, last name, and spell out your last name.

AST3 Faulkner: Sara Faulkner; F-A-U-L-K-N-E-R.

Q: And what is your rating or specialty?

AST3 Faulkner: I’m an Aviation Survival Technician Third Class and I’m an aircrew rescue swimmer.

Q: And how long have you been in the Coast Guard?

AST3 Faulkner: Nine years.

Q: Nine years. And could you give us an overview of your career; how you came into the Coast Guard, why you came into the Coast Guard and what you’ve done so far leading up to your assignment here in Mobile?

AST3 Faulkner: Okay. I’ve sort of always had an interest in the physical part of the military. I always thought boot camp would be cool, which is strange for a girl, and then I found out I was a pretty good swimmer and then I was in high school and found out I was a very good swimmer, and so I just kind of put the two together. I was a Sea Cadet also and went on some Coast Guard training with the rescue swimmers and convinced myself I didn’t want to join the Navy anymore because I wanted to be a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. Then more motivation was that there weren’t any female rescue swimmers and so I went into that to make that happen. 

Q: So when you went to Rescue Swimmer School what were some of the requirements in being accepted and what did you have to do when you were there?

AST3 Faulkner: Well it was tough and actually I took two years longer than I probably, you know before I even put my name on the list because I was so paranoid about physical requirements. I wanted to make sure that I was ready. Luckily I was stationed in Barber’s Point so I had a huge training ground and warm water in the ocean to swim in and stuff. So the swimming part wasn’t a big factor but I was really worried about my upper body strength and so I worked on that a lot with just the push-ups and pull-ups and stuff like that is what I really worked on. And then in “A” School I think I struggled equally with my male counterparts on everything, so I was ready for it.

Q: And what kind of requirements; how many push-ups and give us some specifics?

AST3 Faulkner: Fifty push-ups straight - and those are the male kind - and then you have two minutes rest, 60 sit-ups – everything is two minutes rest – then you do five pull-ups, five chin-ups, a 500-yard swim in under 12 minutes, a 200-yard buddy tow and four underwater laps. Each one has, it’s 25 yards underwater. Each one had 30 seconds rest.

Q: Alright. And getting to Katrina; when were you first notified about your participation in rescue operations and did you do any preparation for this?

AST3 Faulkner: Yes, I actually was on the [HH-]65 evacuation and crew or one of them that went to Jacksonville, Florida. So we waited there while the hurricane was going on and we were just basically on standby waiting to come back. We received word that it was supposed to move a little farther west and we moved to Panama City and we expected to sit there for a few hours. We landed, got fuel, and we were thinking we were going to be there for a while waiting for a call. The pilot in command made a call to let them know that we were on land and they said, “Get airborne immediately, people are dying”, so it was kind of like . . . and I think they said that they had already received 100 distress calls and this was only a few, well I guess it was about the end of the hurricane. So we rode the tail of it back and the pilots had to pick their way carefully through the storm and we landed, and actually I was relieved; actually our whole crew was relieved, and another crew took our helicopter immediately and went to New Orleans. And so I returned the next day.

Q: Now how many search and rescue missions did you fly in total during this time?

AST3 Faulkner: Four.

Q: Four missions, and did you know approximately how many hoists that you were involved in?

AST3 Faulkner: I know that I was involved in at least 52 hoists. Forty-eight of those were in one night and then two were the day after. That Tuesday I did two and then 48 and then I did two after that.

Q: And were you in the water a lot or were you just going on rooftops for the . . . ?

AST3 Faulkner: The first two were in Mississippi. Those were both, well actually one was in a boat on land where it just happened there and people used it as a search and rescue platform because it had a radio. 

I did a rooftop; the next Wednesday I did 25 off a second-story balcony and then I did about 25 in the water up to here in a tennis court.

Q: Really [chuckle]?

AST3 Faulkner: Well we actually took the 25 people, landed, had to get fuel, and then we went and we were like, “Let’s go to that same apartment building because we know the drill. We’ll just find some more people on balconies because we’ve got that pretty down.” And then they all came down the stairs and flooded the parking lot and I was like, “Shoot, that complicates things.” And then actually if they were going to do something and go in the water the fact that they went into the tennis court, which was completely clear and probably no debris because it was fenced off, it was actually a good idea on them, and it was actually pretty quick to pick them up. It was just the water wasn’t very nice.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you about going down in the water. Did you have any concerns regarding that?

AST3 Faulkner: Yes I did. I didn’t hesitate going in the water because those people then, you know, and obviously they just needed to get out of there. So I made the decision that I would go down there and put them on the “Quick Strop” because that’s the fastest thing and we only had a certain amount of time to get like all of these people out of there. So I said, “Let’s just do the “Quick Strop”, and if you don’t know it’s a strap that hooks onto the hook and you can actually send it down so it’s by far the fastest one and you just put it under their armpits and cinch it. 
But it was bad; I mean the smell and the taste [chuckle] were alarming to say the least, and I was thinking the whole time that, “This is bad. This water is really bad.” And I also felt really bad for the people also because they didn’t even seem to notice, you know. And I had to take a shower when I got home. You know those people probably didn’t for about a week so I was worried about them getting sick.

Q: Well there was a lot of chaos going on at the time. How did that affect you; just your training kicked in and you could just block it out and focus on the mission that basically was going on?

AST3 Faulkner: Well I think your senses were heightened as far as your scanning and your listening; all those were heightened. And yes, it was just your head in the game, completely focused.

Q: Now what would you say was the most useful aspect of your training that kicked in? I mean is there one particular thing that in your past that you were trained in that just kicked right in and you really relied upon?

AST3 Faulkner: Probably at Swimmer School they, you know I’m not by nature a very authoritative person but they teach you, “Don’t let these people get the best of you. Even though they’re stronger than you or bigger than you, you are the one in control and command”, and that probably, if I hadn’t had training I probably could let them get the, you know kind of manipulate the situation, and a lot of them tried too like, “I’m going”, and I’d have to yell them and tell them to get back, and “No, women and children first.” And so having that kind of training where I could really use like body language and my voice to assist what the Coast Guard is doing, I think that was probably the most important thing.

Q: Now when you would go down to assess the situation you had communications with the pilot, is that correct?

AST3 Faulkner: No.

Q: Okay, how did you communicate with the pilot if you were down below?

AST3 Faulkner: We would hover over the scene for a while and the whole time we would discuss our plan. So we’d say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to use”, and I had two flight mechanics which was great. Having two was really good because when you are working with so many people one can busy himself with hoisting and me and the other one can secure the cabin and the people and really let us go and get more people while he gets everybody settled. So we would discuss all that and then we really didn’t need communication. It’s all hand-signals from then on.

Q: Now what seemed to be the most challenging part of each of these missions or an unusual aspect to the mission?

AST3 Faulkner: The fact that when I did the ones off the balcony, well actually they all presented their own difficulties. Trying to put somebody in a basket on the roof without the basket sliding down is difficult without yourself not falling off also. But probably the hardest thing was when I did like balcony ones, once I got under the roof they couldn’t see me and probably for them to get a signal from me, like it was just, I don’t know to describe it but it was kind of blind for the helicopter. They didn’t know what was going on and then all of a sudden the flight mech said he would just see, he couldn’t see my hand because I had a black glove on and he would just see one little chunk of my wrist pop out from underneath the helicopter and he knew, “Okay, I can start hoisting now.” So that was kind of scary; like I was worried about them maybe hoisting earlier, the helicopter moving and us falling off the balcony or something like that but it didn’t happen.

Q: So you were able to, because of the Coast Guard’s flexibility, make on-scene decisions you say in a group . . .

AST3 Faulkner: Yes.

Q: . . . keep within the Coast Guard guidelines for flight procedures and record-keeping; all that was adhered to. And as far as treatment of victims, how was that handled? You’re trained in First Aid?

AST3 Faulkner: We’re EMTs. Actually my first two rescues were both medivacs which were both elderly women who then really had a hard time. They’d actually been exposed to the hurricane in the water for hours. And so for those people we didn’t pick anyone else up. We just treated those people and took them to a hospital because it was in Mississippi so there were hospitals still working and stuff, so we just took them.

Q: Now when you picked them up, were they in a building or outside?

AST3 Faulkner: One family was in a boat. It wasn’t their boat but they found it and the daughter started just pushing buttons on the radio and then we eventually found her. And we took the mom and we were out of fuel so we couldn’t take the two daughters but they got picked up by a sheriff in his boat. 

And the other one was a 77-year old woman on top of a roof who had obviously been in the hurricane too and that’s just where the hurricane put her.

Q: Was she conscious when you found her?

AST3 Faulkner: She was conscious but she wasn’t doing well. She actually had emphysema and needed an oxygen tank and didn’t have that and might have had edema. There was definitely something wrong with her legs. They were very swollen. 
So we just focused on those two medivacs and we didn’t pick up anybody who just needed to get out of there because those were definitely priorities. 

Q: How many people could you count in one shot that you picked up and evacuated?

AST3 Faulkner: Twenty-Five was the most on one shot.

Q: Okay, and where did you take most of the persons that you retrieved?

AST3 Faulkner: I don’t know where it is but I think it was the I-10 where all our helicopters and some, I think they were Army, were just dropping them off on the I-10. And there were some ambulances and busses there for them.

Q: Yes.  And now people needing medical attention; were you going to hospitals also in the area?

AST3 Faulkner: Well I did have some people who needed medical attention but they weren’t as bad off as those two women who definitely needed to go to a hospital. We just kind of told them, “Look, hold on five minutes and you will have an ambulance”, and they seemed relived by that, like, “Okay, I can do that. You know I can hang on for five more minutes”, And you know their family was like, “We’re going to make it.” I’m like, “You guys are going to have water and medical; ambulances, in five minutes”, and they’d be like, “Okay, I can hold on.” 

Q: Well I’ve heard that you hoisted like really big strong men and things like that. Can you explain how those rescues are performed?

AST3 Faulkner: Those were also done with the “Quick-Strop” and that is scary, but where the device is made there’s a strap that goes underneath their legs so there’s not really any way they can fall out. So I definitely made sure that I took the extra time just to put that on [chuckle] and a few of those ones I was very glad that I did because they were just so big I couldn’t hardly get my legs around them, because that’s part of what holds them, you know, on . . . .

Q: So you put them in this strap . . . 

AST3 Faulkner: Strop.

Q: Strop, and you attach it and then you hug around them as they go up to keep them in place and not moving around when they go up.

AST3 Faulkner: Yes.

Q: Okay.

AST3 Faulkner: But some of them were so large I couldn’t do that [chuckle]. I mean things were just, you know . . . .

Q: So what did you do, just let them go up by themselves?

AST3 Faulkner: Oh no, they were still attached to me; I just couldn’t wrap my legs around them and get a good grip on them. And also the “Quick Strop” has a slide-keeper and you have to put your hand on it so it doesn’t creep up and they could fall out so you only have one hand to do anything and that one is used to cover their head. So if you’re spinning or kind of cockeyed because they grabbed you over your leg you’re just at the mercy of the helicopter to hopefully get you to stop spinning.

Q: Now did any of the people that you rescued make comments like, “You’re a female. You’re a rescue swimmer”? Were they surprised?

AST3 Faulkner: I think they were surprised but no one said anything about me being female but I do think they thought it was pretty cool [chuckle]. Some of them had smiles on their faces like, “This is neat.” They didn’t say anything about me being female but one guy was like, “Did I tell you I love you”, and stuff like that, so it was neat.

Q: Okay, well why don’t you tell us a bit about the actual rescues; like memorable rescues that you were involved in, and remember, we can cut the camera at any time.

AST3 Faulkner: This is the one I always get choked up on. That first balcony that we went to we specifically picked it because we saw women and children there. So it took me a while to get lowered down and in position and as soon as I kind of straddled the balcony – I’d grab onto it and then I’d sit on it – they put a baby in arms. And our rescue devices are too small for babies so I had to hold him in my bare arms [tearful], and just the look on the mother’s face. You don’t hang a baby over a second story balcony and she just shoved him to me, you know, and I kind of kicked out from underneath the roof because I didn’t have any free hands to even give a signal, and you know they hoisted me up and we started spinning. And I was just so afraid of him wiggling and loosing my grip on him because he maybe would start to freak out or whatever, but he didn’t thank goodness. But I actually had to check him and make sure he was okay because I made sure I wasn’t crushing him because I was holding onto him so tight. That was hard but I did three more after that and I wasn’t as nearly freaked out, but that first one was scary [tearful].

Q: Do you want some tissue? We can stop the camera and get you some tissue?

AST3 Faulkner: Sure [chuckle]. But yes, it was tough. Just that one; that’s the one that just sticks in my mind because that was like, and then I was like, “Oh shoot, I better check him to make sure his eyeballs haven’t popped out of his head [chuckle].

Q: Alright. Now are there any other rescues you would care to tell us about?

AST3 Faulkner: The comment I made about that person who said, “Did I tell you I love you”; I wish I could meet him in real life because he – it makes me choked up too – he made it so much easier for me to save him and save 25 other people because I’d tell him what I needed and he would give it to me and he would have everyone organized, and I didn’t have to tell him – his name was Gary – and I didn’t have to tell him, you know, “Women and children and elderly first”, and he was the last person to go up. And I mean by the time we had three or four people down and he was giving them the speal instead of me and I could focus on hooking them up, and he was awesome. I wish I could meet him. That would be great.

Q: Now when you came back here to the station what was the mood; how did you . . . were you quiet or how did you feel?

AST3 Faulkner: Well you know I didn’t see anything that was terrible, and my flight crew did such a great job. I think we were all just really tired but kind of had that sense of like, “Wow, we really accomplished something good. Good job everybody.” It wasn’t’ like an upset like, “That was not a good experience.” 

Q: Well were you shocked when you went to New Orleans and saw the devastation?

AST3 Faulkner: I was what I thought was prepared or as best I could imagine something just from hearing what other people had told me, and my chief actually asked me, you know, “No offense but are you ready? You’re probably going to be hoisting about 50 people”, and I said, “I’m ready”, and that’s exactly what I did. But it was tough to see the houses and cars underwater and then when it got dark to see the flashlights everywhere. And I just wanted to tell, like we could tell those people, “We see you. We see you. We’re going to get to you as soon as possible but turn your flashlight off, save your batteries, because we might not get to you until tomorrow night and you might need that.” So that was tough to see these flashlights like waving everywhere.

Q: Now you saved a few animals while you were there.

AST3 Faulkner: Yes, actually that same one with the guy Gary, they asked me, “Can we bring our pets”, and I asked him what kind of dog - I don’t know what he said or I couldn’t hear him and then I saw it walk by and it was huge – and I was like, “No, I can’t take your dog”, and he actually had to convince his wife to come because she was going to stay with the dog. So that was tough and I felt like the bad guy there but we did get his cat and a Chihuahua and they were in the same cat carrier so it was kind of funny. But as far as animals, those are the only ones I picked up.

Q: Now is there anything you’d like to add to this that we haven’t covered?

AST3 Faulkner: I don’t think so. I think you covered everything.

Q: Now I understand you’re going to be on “Glamour’s Woman of the Year”. How did you get contacted by the magazine; what happened there?

AST3 Faulkner: Public Affairs Headquarters called me and said, “You need to call us as soon as possible”, and to be honest I thought it was people here that just wanted to do like one of these interviews and so I was like, “ooohh”. Then she said something about Glamour Magazine and I was like, “Oh”, and called her right back. I don’t know how they found out about me. Maybe they just called the Coast Guard and said, “Hey, do have women who participated”, and they knew and gave them my name. So Public Affairs got my story. They told Glamour and Glamour was like, “Definitely we want to have her as one of the Women of the Year and it’s our little thing is, Female Heroes of the Hurricane.” But it’s not just me; it’s a police officer, a nurse and a female minister.

Q: Have they interviewed you yet?

AST3 Faulkner: Yes.

Q: Okay, and they’re going to have a ceremony when?

AST3 Faulkner: Its November 2nd in New York City.

Q: At Lincoln Center?

AST3 Faulkner: In the Lincoln Center.

Q: Very good.  I guess that’s it. Thank you very much.

AST3 Faulkner: You’re welcome.

Q: Good job.

AST3 Faulkner: Thank you.

END OF INTERVIEW


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