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Pilot part of rescue efforts

By Staff
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
Lt. Ryan Matson, the son of Hartselle residents Terry and Maurine Matson, is one of the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilots who played a major role in rescue operations in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
His crew of four-two pilots, a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer-were deployed from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Houston, Tex. to New Orleans on Wednesday, August 31, two days after Katrina struck the gulf coast. They rescued 224 people and four dogs over the next four days. Of that number, 110 were picked up and flown to safety on Thursday, the second day of the operation.
"They worked out of a HH65 Dolphin helicopter in seven-hour shifts, flying over different areas of the city. On their busiest day, they were flying over the waterfront area.
"We found people of all ages stranded on rooftops and in upper floors of buildings, surrounded by deep water," Matson said. "Most of them were exhausted, hungry, thirsty and terrified. Some were ill and weak and unable to help themselves. A lot of them were happy to see us and thankful to get to a safe place. But we got turned away by some who wanted to stay."
"Our mechanic would lower the swimmer down. Then, he'd make the hookups with those being rescued and the mechanic would pull them up," Matson added. "We tried to keep families together. In cases where they were separated, we'd hurry back to get the rest."
Up to nine people could be brought aboard the helicopter at one time, depending on the amount of fuel on board. Those rescued were transported to one of three drop points, Louis Armstrong Airport, Waterfront Airport and a cloverleaf on I-10.
"I was impressed from the moment I got there," Matson added. "The Coast Guard handled things well and the combined operation, including the Navy, Marine Corps and Army went smoothly. Everyone did a phenomenal job."
During the operation, rescue teams were housed at the New Orleans Coach Guard Station. Although heavily damaged by the hurricane, it provided basic shelter and a place to bed down in sleeping bags or on cots. There was no running water, electricity or sewer service. and basic shelter.
Matson said the operation was tiring but rewarding.
"It was an experience I'll always remember but something I hope never see again," he stated.
What struck me the most was the gratitude of the people we were able to help and how fast you can lose everything you own," he added.
Matson's mother is a kindergarten teacher at Barkley Bridge Elementary School. She said even though she is aware that her son is at risk every time he flies a mission, she has learned to cope with it.
"His father and I are very proud of him and we're happy because he's doing something he loves to do," she stated.
"I cried when he first started flying" she pointed out. "Then, I prayed about it. I told my Lord, he's in your hands; remember, I can't handle anything. Please help me not to worry about this."
Matson graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2002 and earned his wings as a helicopter pilot in August 2004. He and his wife, Shannon, live in Houston.

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