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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: AMT1 William Brian Williams, USCG

Flight Mechanic, Air Station Cape Cod

Interviewer: PACS Peter J. Capelotti, USCGR
Date of Interview: 8 November 2005
Place: Air Station Cape Cod


AMT1 William B. Williams
Interview Length: 28:22

At the time of the interview, AMT 1Williams had been at AIRSTA Cape Cod for less than a month. He is a H-60J and H-65 mechanic. Things were chaotic upon arrival at ATC Mobile. On the first day out he was involved in rescuing 50 people. Prior to Katrina, he had been involved in rescuing 12 people. He also discussed the standardization of aviation rescue training and annual qualification. He discussed the weight limitations of the hoists and dealing with removing people from the baskets into the aircraft. He discussed the awkwardness of working flights with crewmen, he had just met. He expects that changes in training will result from these operations.

Quote: "It was difficult to do scheduled maintenance."

Q: If you could, give me your name, rank and rate and spell your last name please.

AMT1 Williams: AMT1 William Brian Williams; W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S.

Q: And could you give me sort of a paragraph about your career in the Coast Guard; when you enlisted and how you got to where you are now?

AMT1 Williams: I came in the Coast Guard in 1990. I went to a 378. I went to MK “A” School. I went to two MSOs; MSO Honolulu and MSO Tampa. I got out of the Coast Guard for a year. I came back in and went Aviation. As an AM I went to Air Station Los Angeles, then went to Air Station San Diego and now at Air Station Cape Cod.

Q: How long have you been here for?

AMT1 Williams: I’ve been here for about three months. I just got here.

Q: Yes.  So you didn’t have a whole lot of time to settle in before they . . . ?

AMT1 Williams: No, I was here for probably only three or four weeks and I was sent down to New Orleans.

Q: And when were you told that you might be sent down there in support of these operations?

AMT1 Williams:
Probably about two days prior to the hurricane hitting. I was standby to standby.

Q: And you’re an H-60 mechanic?

AMT1 Williams: I’m an H-60, prior A-65. I’m a mechanic for both.

Q: Okay.  So where did you deploy to from here?

AMT1 Williams: What we did is we flew down to Mobile to centralize a meeting point for all Coast Guard Aviation for the Katrina ops. Once we got there we basically got organized and decided who was going to take what shifts.

Q: How did you do that? Well first of all let me ask what you found when you got there?

AMT1 Williams: When we got there it was a little chaotic because just like any large disaster it takes a while to get organized; Exxon Valdez; the big ships dumping oil; things of that sort, waiting for the whole evolution to take its time and then get a structure. So everything’s structured and at that point they started structuring schedules; getting routines and assigning people different jobs tasks. For the majority of the time I was scheduled like a Night Supervisor in charge of Line Crew and Maintenance with another First and a Chief, and then we had rotations for Flight Mechs.

Q: Was there somebody in your rate who was doing all that scheduling?

AMT1 Williams: Usually we’d pick one person from days and one person from nights and then we just went down the list in a pecking order; “Okay, you got here first. You’ve been here first. You go next and then you, then you, and we tried to rotate it around so everyone could get their turn. 
After the first four or five days probably 90 percent of the rescues had been done so after that it was really slim pickings. They would go out and get maybe one or two, maybe transports versus actual rescues. I think the first time I went out there was my second day there and I rescued about 50 people, saved, and then after that it went down quickly. People were coming back with, “Yes, I got ten” or “I got two”, or “I didn’t get any this time”. But the people from the Coast Guard operations were still coming in so we had actually more people than we could handle, so actually the people were coming in and then we were sending people back home pretty quickly.

Q: Have you been involved in a lot of rescues to this point in your career before this?

AMT1 Williams:
About a dozen between San Diego and LA, and plus we do our annual MINS.

What is that?

AMT1 Williams: Our annual minimums for a Flight Mechanic would consist of a hoist to a boat underway, a hoist to a boat dead in the water, swimmer evolutions, deploying rafts, and simulated emergencies, which is a big part; ICS emergencies.

Q: Do they simulate the boat and the hoist as well or do you get enough practice at that with the real thing?

AMT1 Williams: No, this is real. We always do it for real. For example, if we’re hoisting to a 41-footer what we’ll do is we’ll have the boat say, “Okay, we have a simulated fouled cable” – for example, the cable is fouled around the mast or a capstan or whatever item you have - or “We’ve lost target”, or something of that sort, so it’s done live. 

Q: Using another Coast Guard vessel?

AMT1 Williams: Using another Coast Guard vessel or into the water with a swimmer. We don’t do emergencies with swimmers because obviously it’s more dangerous but we do it with a basket; the litter, the trail-line and things of that sort. 

Q: Was there some kind of balance . . . well how much maintenance sort of Mobile-based center stuff were you doing and how much were you flying?

AMT1 Williams: It was amazing how much maintenance there was because there is . . . I’ve been in the Coast Guard for 15 years. I don’t want to say I’ve seen everything but I’ve seen a good portion of this stuff and it was amazing to see that many helicopters in one location. When you first got there it was like, “Whoa, this is a madhouse”! Until everyone gets organized it’s like everyone’s running around. Its like, “Okay, everyone wants to help.” Don’t get me wrong, everyone wants to help but it just takes a little time to get things organized and then once things started getting organized, “Okay, you’re in charge of this, you’re in charge of that, and then once we became accustomed, “Okay, this is our job at hand”, things started to roll a lot smoother after the first couple of days. Once we made a good plan and things were going everything worked out very smoothly and thank God there were no real major accidents because there are so many people and so much maintenance going on, and helicopters are breaking all the time. The same person that started the job wouldn’t necessarily complete the job and it would get passed on from three shifts; a day shift, a night shift and a mid shift, 24 hours a day, so it was difficult to keep accountability. 

Q: As to who had done what and when.

AMT1 Williams:
Correct, it was difficult for pass-downs in that respect.

Q: Do you have a specialty within the H-60 or are you just supposed to be able fix everything? I mean how does that work?

AMT1 Williams: I’m an AMT so I’m supposed to basically fix everything except for Avionics.

Q: Right.

AMT1 Williams: So engines, landing gear and airframe. I’m a prior AM, if you remember back when they had AMs and ADs, so I’m a structural guy; riveting, stuff like that. But when they combined the rates basically an AMT covers everything except for Avionics.

Q: Was there anything that was going faster then anything else; anything that you saw a lot of that was breaking down?

AMT1 Williams: It was difficult to keep up with the scheduled maintenance because we were flying two, three, four times as many flight hours as are anticipated so a plane might fly say typically 15 hours a week but we were flying 15 hours a day because we’d go out, hot refuel the aircraft and it was like, “Whoa, we’re already up to the next maintenance cycle. We’ve got to bring this bird in”. Its like, “How did we get there, that was just yesterday?” But there were so many flight hours it was hard to fathom how fast they went up and how fast they were grounded because they’d go out, come back and they’re grounded already because they’d do two or three Hot Seats and each one was six hours. That’s 18 hour flights during the day. So the first couple of days were pretty hectic.

Q: And so they have, I guess, just schedules where they reach so many hours and they’ve got to do certain maintenance.

AMT1 Williams: Say for example every 200 flight hours we have to replace a tire or every 200 flight hours we have to do an engine inspection or a main rotor blade inspection, so some items are calendar and some are aircraft flight time.

Q: What about these hoists? I mean it seems with the number of hoists that are being done either the hoist motor or the cable must have been taking a helluva lot of strain?

AMT1 Williams: Yes, that’s a big concern. I mean they’re rated at 600 pounds and unfortunately there were a lot of big people that needed to be hoisted down there and a lot of . . . .

Q: Are there weight limits on the swimmers themselves?

AMT1 Williams: Well the hoist is limited to 600 pounds.

Q: So you’ve got say a 200-pound or a 180-pound swimmer or something like that, then whatever’s left over . . . .

AMT1 Williams: Right. So even if the swimmer is 250 and the person weighs 250 you’re only up to 500 so you’re still good. But a lot of times, even myself, I hoisted a couple of times with say a large adult and a child because the child was real small, so it adds weight, and then if they’re soaking wet and lot of them; probably 90 percent of them had a backpack with them; their belongings, the things they owned.

Q: And you don’t have a weight scale down there to see [chuckle].

AMT1 Williams: No, no it’s like . . . .

Q: Are you carrying gold bars or anything in there [chuckle]?

AMT1 Williams: Right, it’s like, you know that’s what probably they say.

Q: Now can they hear that on the hoist when there’s a big . . . I would imagine even if you do hit 500-pounds and you’ve still got that leeway you can probably hear that it’s taking more strain then if you’ve got 20 pounds. 

AMT1 Williams: Yes, you can hear . . . I heard one time I was listening and it was, “Oh, I don’t know. This is a big . . . .”, you’re more concerned about, “Am I going to be able to get this person out of the basket?” Once I get them in there its like, “Am I going to be strong enough to lift them out of the basket and still make sure they don’t fall out of the helicopter?”

Q: Is there any capability to swing the basket or does the Flight Mech have to actually pull it in? 

AMT1 Williams: Yes, I have to pull it in.

Q: Yes.

AMT1 Williams: So the 65s, they had the boom, which pivots, but in the 60 you have to slide it in yourself and try to get them out and they’re tired and they’re fatigued so they’re going to need all the help they can get. And after 20, 30, 40, sometimes 50 hoists, you’re tuckered out by the end of the day [chuckle]. Generally the swimmer could help you but in this case for most of these rescues he was on the ground, “Okay, you’re next, you’re next. Okay, let me check out your injuries. You’re okay. You’re next”.

Q: So you’re just taking those people in and then just sending the basket right back down?

AMT1 Williams: Correct, making sure the injuries aren’t life threatening or anything of that sort.

Q: Obviously this is a bazaar situation. It must have been more so for people who had either never seen a helicopter up close much less get lifted up in one.

AMT1 Williams: They were very scared if that’s what you mean.

Q: Yes.

AMT1 Williams: I remember probably 70 percent of the people came up with their eyes closed. They were scared. And a lot of them, they were like, “No. . .”, someone was saying, “Oh no, we don’t need rescuing, we’re okay”, and when they get up to the helicopter with their eyes closed they finely open their eyes and look around and they’re in amazement. They have no idea. They might think it’s just their block that was flooded but then they look out and it’s like, “Whoa, the whole city is flooded”. They had no idea because they have no TV, no cable, no phones, so they have no connection to the outside area. They don’t even know what the extent of the damage is. 

Q: Sure.

AMT1 Williams: So when they see it they’re like, “Whoa, this is the whole area”. 
They’re so grateful too.

Q: Do you remember your first mission and did you fly into the city or where did you go?

AMT1 Williams: You know you can watch it on TV all day long but you can’t really grasp the extent of it until you see it in person. The smells you smell, the buildings on fire and the bodies floating in the water and just the people; they’re so scared, and it’s hard to describe unless you’ve been in there doing it. And the first hoists, you know just like any Search and Rescue, you’re scared, not scared but you’re nervous. You’ve got little butterflies in your stomach and sometimes you’re like, “Okay, is this going to fall on me”, a little prayer under my breath, you know, “Please God, get me through this situation.” You know I’ve done hundreds of hoists before but you know this is a biggie. I mean you could train your whole career and not get something like this.

Q: What did you see as you were going into the city?

AMT1 Williams: People sitting on top of cars and people with their children stuck on bridges or on roofs and people waving from holes in their roofs, waving their hands or white flags or t-shirts. And when we first got there there were so many people we had to pick and choose. “Okay, look, we have a group here and we have a group here. We can get this group because there are less obstacles; there are less power lines and it’s safer”. I mean we want to get these people here but we’ve got to prioritize things.

Q: So it wasn’t just the number of people, it was also based on whether it was a dangerous place to get them out from?

AMT1 Williams: Correct, there was a lot of danger for two reasons mainly to us. One: the amount of air traffic was outrageous, plus the lack of communications to the ground, because I think the towers were down and because it’s a very old community all the power lines and the phone lines were above ground, unlike in new communities where they’re all underground nowadays. Because of that our hoisting altitude had to be increased or doubled because of these circumstances.

Q: You’re hoisting height . . . .

AMT1 Williams: Correct.

Q: Yes, so I mean what’s your typical height that you hoist?

AMT1 Williams: It might be 60/70 feet but here maybe we had to do 100/150 feet, which took longer.

Q: And that’s not a typical height.

AMT1 Williams: No, it’s not really typical because obviously the longer it is, just a little swing becomes a larger swing, and also it’s just difficult . . . you’re so far away and it takes time obviously.

Q: I also think that for the person, I mean obviously they don’t know that your standard hoist is 60 or 70 feet.

AMT1 Williams:

I mean all they know is that they’re going up to the top of a 15-story building with nothing underneath them.

AMT1 Williams:
Right, and they’re scared. I remember this one time the people were so scared they just wanted to get in the helicopter. I remember this one time I was hoisting this, probably a father or maybe a grandfather with a child; an infant - it couldn’t have been more than three or four weeks old – and he was so scared. I’m hoisting him up, I’m hoisting him up, hoisting him up, and before he even got to the cabin he’s trying to get out of the basket. So he’s below the aircraft and he’s trying to get out of the basket and I’m pushing on the top of his head because if he gets out he’s going to fall, and we’re at 150 feet so obviously he’s going to die. Then he sat back down and he just hands me the baby from underneath the aircraft and I’ve got one hand on the hoist button and one hand on the cable. So I’m trying to get him in and he’s trying to hand me the baby so I had to drop the hoist thing, grab the baby, and I’m like, “Please God don’t . . .”, and I’m just grabbing the baby. And I had this other guy, he was like a trainee, just watching, helping me, and he grabbed the baby and thank God we didn’t drop the baby. I was so scared. I was like, “Thank God we didn’t drop that baby”. Because he was so scared he just wanted to get out of that basket so fast he wasn’t even thinking that, “I’m not even in the aircraft yet.” If he would have . . . because you know there’s like a gap and that was it. 

And then we had a couple other ones, like they have babies but they’re so scared. Their thing is just for survival and just get in there and by this time they’ve been on their roofs for a week - this is sad – and they haven’t eaten. Who knows what they’re drinking. They’re sunburned. They’re dehydrated, you know probably sick from the water with all the fuels in it. So they’re probably not thinking straight. 

Q: Right.

AMT1 Williams: So it was rough seeing all that stuff.

Did you have much communication with them when they got into the helicopter? Obviously you’re occupied getting the thing back down but once you had a full load and you were going some place did they talk very much?

AMT1 Williams: It’s hard for them to hear us. I remember this one lady was like, “I’m not getting out without my husband”, and she’s yelling. Its like, “Look, we’re out of gas. We’re going to send the next helicopter back to get your husband.” So she finally calmed down. And a lot of them are like, “Where are we going, where are we going”, or, “What about my dog”, and we just basically go, “Just calm down. We’re going to take you to a safe place”, and basically, “Just please, just calm down so we can get you to a safe place”, and just get them to settle down.

Q: Suffice it to say that you had never encountered something quite . . . I would think that when you’re doing these out at sea that the person is already desperate. They want to be rescued. They’re saying, “Pick me up and please take me some place.”

AMT1 Williams: Right.

Q: But here they didn’t necessarily want or need to be rescued where you had this kind of negotiation about pets, spouses, children and all that.

AMT1 Williams: Right, and a lot of them, they were pretty sick. We had a couple of MedEvacs that people were injured or sick and they were covered in polluted water and it made the cabin smell not too friendly. It stunk pretty bad. And a couple of them we had to get out of the water and we didn’t want to put the swimmer down in the water because the water was so contaminated. So I had to put the basket in the water in between some power lines. While I’m putting it in the water some of the guys are walking through the water up to their necks and they’re putting their stuff up high so it doesn’t get wet and they try to get into the basket but they’re too weak. So I’m waiting and I’m waiting and he gets halfway in the basket and I’m like, “I guess I’ve got to go for it because he’s not even getting in there”. So this was like a 150-foot hoist and he finally gets halfway in the basket and I’m like, “I guess I’ve got to go. This is as far as he’s going to get in.” I’m like all the way it was like, “Well I hope he holds on because there’s nothing I can do.”

Q: Yes.

AMT1 Williams: You know obviously if we drop him that’s it, he’s gone. 

Q: Along with all our good will.

AMT1 Williams: What was that?

Q: Along with all of our good will for the week.

AMT1 Williams: Yes [chuckle].

Q: I guess the Navy did drop somebody.

AMT1 Williams: Yes, I remember I was out one day and we heard on the radio, it was like, “Who’s getting the one that he dropped?” So the Navy dropped a heavy; 300-400 pound lady, dropped her through the Quick Strap I guess. You know she couldn’t hold her own weight and they told the Coast Guard to come out and pick her up. I guess her husband or family was in the helicopter when it happened and then we had to pick up the body.

Q: So they did find the body?

AMT1 Williams: Well they saw her drop . . .

Q: Right there.

AMT1 Williams: . . . I guess and then they said, “Hey, we’re full. Can you get her?” I’m like, “Come on, that’s a little . . . you guys just killed her and you want us to come get her”.

Q: That wasn’t your crew that did that?

AMT1 Williams: No, we didn’t pick her up. We heard it on the radio but we were picking up somebody else.

Q: I see. That’s nice of the Navy to pass that job on.

AMT1 Williams: Yes.

Q: Do you remember how many missions you participated in?

AMT1 Williams: I flew twice.

Q: And you consider that from the time the rotor starts until the time they shut it off or do you consider it between, say if you land in between . . . I mean how are those missions computed? 

AMT1 Williams: I flew two separate days.

Q: Yes.

AMT1 Williams: One day we didn’t basically do anything because we were just doing like PR stuff. The day before that it was pretty hectic. It was like the third day after Katrina and as soon as we got there we were picking up maybe four or five at a time and then as the days went on they got more scarce. We were going from house to house. We started using the swimmers and putting spray cans on the roofs, like numbers; “2 dead bodies” or “3 dead bodies”, or going in there and verifying, “Is anyone else here” and stuff like that. So it was about I think a total of like maybe 50 people saved.

Q: Do you remember the . . . I get a sense from the standardization training that when you go into a situation like that you have no idea who you might be flying with or you might never have seen them before. Did you know anybody that you flew with?

AMT1 Williams: It was a coincidence. I flew with some pilots here and others and the swimmer. I never even met the swimmer. “How are you doing? Nice to meet you.” He’s like, “We’re in for a . . .”, you know, “This is a biggie.”

Q: And I know why it’s done obviously, it’s for efficiently, but you two, especially in that crew, have each other’s lives in your hands and you just met each other ten seconds before you start.

AMT1 Williams: Right.

Q: I mean how does that work?

AMT1 Williams: That was kind of awkward. Its like, “How are you doing?” He’s like, “Hi, how are you doing?” Its like, “Have you been out yet?” He’s like, “Yes”. Its like, “Alright, you know what you’re in for, right?” He’s like, “Yes”. And then we had to make up a couple of things. It’s like we had the axe. “Okay, what’s the signal for the axe?” “If I want the axe I’m going to go like this. If I want the saw I’m going to go like this. If I want the spray can I’m going to go like this.” So the Coast Guard’s never dealt with anything like this before. So I mean yes, this is a terrible situation but because of this training will come out of this and education, so preparedness for the next national disaster will be that much better because of this one. I mean, yes, it’s terrible but we did learn from this. 

Q: Well that was my next question is, is now that you’ve had a little bit of time to look back on it what have you learned from it and what would you recommend if you had to do something like this in the future?

AMT1 Williams: I learned that because we do the standardization that basically every Flight Mech can go to any air station and do that job because we do it exactly the same wherever we go. This was able to work out smoothly. The co-pilot, the pilot, the swimmer and Flight Mech all know their jobs no matter what air station we go to so we can go in and do that, just like you said, do that standardization, so we already know what he’s going to do before he even does it.

Q: So it would have been untenable to have 20 different air stations with 20 different ways of doing things trying to get together and do this operation together.

AMT1 Williams: Right, correct. Because of the standardization in Coast Guard Aviation it was able to work well.

Q: What were some of the risks of executing this kind of operation in this environment?

AMT1 Williams: I’d say the biggest risk was . . . I don’t know why there wasn’t a mid-air collision. There were so many close calls. There were too many aircraft that shouldn’t have been there; be it news crew or whatever. I hate to say it but because the Coast Guard saves lives everyday . . . and I’m not saying we’re any better than them but we do it everyday so we’re experts at it. The Navy is experts at Sea Warfare for example so we shouldn’t be expected to do that. So I’m just saying let the experts do what they’re best at. Some of those other Services helped out and saved a lot of lives but if it’s over your head say, “Hey, it’s over our head. We shouldn’t be doing this.” Obviously I’m referring to when that lady fell out. I mean we save lives everyday and we do it and we’re good at it, so just let us do our job so to speak.

Q: Did you see any of the Air Force Inland Search and Rescue folks; were they around in their helicopters?

AMT1 Williams: I saw gray helicopters but I didn’t know what they were. They could have been National Guard, Navy, Air Force, whatever, but we stayed in the Coast Guard bases so we went back and forth from Mobile to New Orleans the whole time. 

Q: It’s safe to say that you hadn’t seen that many Coast Guard helicopters doing one thing. 

AMT1 Williams: Yes, I think it was like 50 percent of the Coast Guard air force.

Q: Was there any aspect of your training that was useful in this?

AMT1 Williams: All of the recurrent training like the Minimums, “Okay, I need six hoists every six months. I need five emergencies. I need five ICFs; Internal Communication Failures. All that stuff came into play 

Q: What was the mood of the Flight Mechs at Mobile?

AMT1 Williams: The Mobile Station ones or just everyone?

Q: Not just the ones at Mobile but all the folks who had come to Mobile to work in this emergency.

AMT1 Williams: I got there fairly early in the Katrina ops so I would see each day new guys come in, you know like, “Hey coach, put me in. I can do it, I can do it.” They were very eager to do it and they would come in like, “Okay, you’re off for the next eight hours.” It’s like, “I’ll stay here, just put me in a flight with somebody.” Everybody wanted to be part of the action. I mean obviously they couldn’t all do it but generally the guys that got there first did the majority of the hoists so the guys that came in late felt like they got kind of left out a little bit because the majority was done.

Q: So there was a definite sense while you were doing this that this was unusual?

AMT1 Williams: Yes, I heard the Leading Chiefs and the supervisors saying, “Most people go through their Coast Guard career and they might save one or two, maybe even a half a dozen lives, not 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 in a week. This is Coast Guard history”, and he’s like, “This is a big deal.” It’s like, “There’s never been anything even close to this in the Coast Guard. This is the stuff you’re going to read about 20 years from now.” It’s like, “You’re a part of it. It’s a big deal.” And for the younger guys it’s like they can even appreciate it. It’s like, “This is a big deal.” I mean you’re probably never going to see something like this again.

Q: But you’ve got a helluva lot of experienced young Petty Officers now [chuckle].

AMT1 Williams: Yes, with like, “Yes, I’ve saved 500 lives”. You know its like, “Yes.”

Q: And you’ll save 510 by the time your career is over [chuckle].

AMT1 Williams: Yes.

Q: What was the most memorable thing that you got out of this situation?

AMT1 Williams: Probably when that baby almost dropped. That was scary when that father or grandfather was so scared that he tried to get himself and the baby out of the basket before he was even in the aircraft. I’ll never forget that.

Q: So were they underneath of the . . . ?

AMT1 Williams: Underneath the aircraft.

Q: So his head was actually underneath the aircraft?

AMT1 Williams: Right, and he was trying to climb up out of the basket. 
And probably the bodies floating in the water.

Q: Yes, and you saw a lot of that?

AMT1 Williams: Yes. 

Q: In the city of New Orleans I guess?

AMT1 Williams: Yes.

Q: Yes.  Now that you’ve been back here for a while, what do you take out of this as you move forward in your career that you’ll try to pass on or to say to other folks, or just for your own career?

AMT1 Williams: I feel that it was a tragic situation but it was a good opportunity to show the whole country how good the Coast Guard is. It’s almost like because we’re in the spotlight so much people can appreciate what a good job the Coast Guard does for this country. I mean it was tragic that all those people got injured and lost their homes but it was an opportunity for the Coast Guard to shine and they did it good. I mean you hear stories about, “The government didn’t do this right”, or “They delayed too much”, but all you hear is about what a great job the Coast Guard did and it was a good opportunity and learning experience for the Coast Guard for future disasters like this. 

Q: Is there anything else you wanted to add that we hadn’t covered?

AMT1 Williams: No.

Q: Well thank you, thank you very much.


Last Modified 1/12/2016