Dagger Point: Airman 1st Class Paul Santilli reminisces about Hurricane Katrina relief efforts

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kelly Ogden
  • 16th SOW Public Affairs
(Dagger Point is a multi-part series focusing in Air Commando history.)

Almost one year ago, Airman 1st Class Paul Santilli, 20th Special Operations Squadron aerial gunner, served as part of a team put together for recovery efforts in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina. Airman Santilli, along with members of the 20th SOS, was directly involved in flying media, providing federal government support and relocating hundreds of residents. The swift action of his team resulted in immediate medical attention for the handicapped and injured residents and keeping affected families together.

Commando: What was your initial reaction when you were tasked for this operation?

Santilli: I thought that something bad has happened and I was ready to do whatever I needed to fix it. That was my mentality for the duration of the operation. Once we got in the area and saw the extent of the chaos, we tried to look through the bad so that we could help out the people.

Commando: Why did they choose you to do this?

Santilli: I was in flying status and lived in the dorms. I was single, had no kids and no responsibilities. It was the noblest thing that I have ever done in my entire life. The 20th SOS had the tools to help out. I was proud to be able to help.

Commando: What did you do for Hurricane Katrina efforts?

Santilli: It started off that we evacuated our helicopters to Georgia. We slept there and came back the next day. Our first task was to do governmental support. The first night in the actual disaster area we slept in a hangar. Then we mapped out places that we could land - places that were not all torn up. Day two consisted of ushering around government officials and the media. Day three, until conclusion of the operation, was spent in rescue operations. We would go to places such as a ball fields and the convention center. We would go in, land, take people to the airport and take the injured to seek medical care.

Commando: What was your schedule?

Santilli: We would go every other day. The first couple of days, we would work three days in a row. We switched over from sleeping in the hangar to coming back to Hurlburt every night. We were working 12 hours a day, some days we would have to get special waivers so that we could fly longer and help more people.

Commando: What was your reaction when you arrived on scene?

Santilli: Well, I remember doing a walk-around and seeing a nest of dead birds, whole fences torn down and street signs scattered throughout the streets. We flew over mall parking lots and saw cars with water all the way up to the doors. All the oil and the antifreeze leaked out of the engine; all you would see is an oil slick. The waste had nowhere to go because all of the sewers were backed up. I remember seeing dead bodies floating in the water, it was hard. We couldn't get to them at the time, but we passed down information on the radio where they were. I saw things that you wouldn't see in everyday life. After the fourth day of actually flying over there, your body and your mind begin to become numb to the surroundings.

Commando: How did the people of New Orleans react to you being there?
Santilli: They definitely had mixed emotions. Some of them got on the helicopter and shook our hands. But, some of them were so weak to the point that they could barely smile, while others were too distraught over the fact they had lost everything to say a word. 

: Was there anybody in particular who really stood out that you helped?

Santilli: We ended up landing on a highway. The highway was on a ramp and there was water on both sides. So, we just came up and landed. At the time I was on the tail and I remember seeing a couple of boats filled with people. They came onto the ramp and began unloading people. We took them to safety from there.
We are a big aircraft and we could fit a lot of people in the back, around 30 people. So, we would pick up 50 to 75 percent more than the other helicopters on-scene. The people would bring everything that they had; dogs, cats and birds in cages...Some people came onto the aircraft with absolutely nothing, others showed up with trash bags full of their personal belongings.

Commando: Were the people understanding of the fact that you had to make a quick decision about who would go and would stay?

Santilli: For the most part, people were very understanding. We airlifted people in wheelchairs and people who needed medical attention first. We could see who needed to leave and who didn't. The people who were in good health knew that they could hold out a little longer and help those who were in need. Obviously, we tried not to split up the families. We were pretty well organized for the amount of chaos that was going on. If we couldn't take them right then and there, another helicopter would show up about five minutes later. We called our sister-ship and told them to come to a specific location and to pick them up.

Commando: What was the most difficult part of being over there?

Santilli: Just knowing our limitations; we knew exactly what we could and couldn't do. The other small helicopters could hover over rooftops. We knew our helicopter was incapable of doing that. We would've just caused more damage because of our size.

Commando: What kind of camaraderie existed between you and the members of your squadron who were flying with you?

Santilli: Well, we are all very close because of the other aspects of our job, and we just transitioned it right over to peacetime. We trust each other with our lives. If something goes wrong with that helicopter or something bad happens, not just one person dies; the whole helicopter crashes. You don't crash in compartments.