(LEX 18) — For the crews on the Kentucky National Guard's Blackhawk helicopters, there's nothing like a day at work.
"It's an awesome job! Sometimes it can be terrifying hanging out of a helicopter 100 or 200 feet above the ground or the water, but it's what I love doing," said Staff Sergeant Shaun Morris, a crew chief and hoist operator.
In 2019, Morris and his crewmate, Sergeant First Class Jeremy Lowe, a flight medic, helped with the Kentucky National Guard's first civilian rescue on the hoist.
"Somebody had a medical condition and we rescued her right off the top of Natural Bridge. It was awesome. First time we'd done a live rescue with civilians," Morris said.
The hoist can let Lowe down onto the ground to help a patient and then bring them back up to the helicopter.
"He's really good about getting me in there and getting me right back out," Lowe said.
In the last few years, they had done a handful of civilian hoist rescues on missions in Kentucky, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, but nothing could prepare them for what they faced in Eastern Kentucky last week.
"Started getting calls around 5:30, 6:00 a.m. on Thursday, saying hey we need some people in. We've got some massive flooding in the eastern part of the state," Morris said.
"As soon as we got airborne and got over that way within radio communication, we started receiving missions - people on rooftops, people stuck in trees, people on cars, on bridges, stranded everywhere," Lowe said. "I was not prepared for the amount of water that was flowing through those towns and those valleys. It was unbelievable how much water was flowing through there. It was devastation like I hadn't seen before in a natural disaster,"
Ground teams, or search and rescue teams in boats called in coordinates where people needed help.
"It was one after another. It was just constant. If we weren't getting calls from rescue teams, we were just seeing people out on roofs, rooftops," Morris said.
They flew in over one house where people were taking shelter in their attic as the water kept rising. Lowe dropped down onto the rooftop and made contact with them through a vent, getting them to come out through a window and onto the roof.
"Water had started to enter the attic space and so it became more urgent. We needed to hurry up and get them out of the attic and off the roof. The water was moving very fast and it was rising. When we first got there, it was at the bottom of the window and by the time all was said and done, it was about neck-deep in there," Lowe said.
For most of the people, Lowe used the rescue seat, but for others, like an 83-year-old woman they rescued, the basket made more sense.
"When the boat crew brought her to me, she scampered up that roof like a mountain goat. Every time I went back to the airport, I would wave to her and be like, 'You're my favorite rescue so far! You were amazing!' She did such a good job and just rode that basket up like a champ," Lowe said.
All told, Lowe, Morris, and their crew saved 75 people Thursday and Friday, either by hoist or by landing and picking them up. All the Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia National Guard helicopters saved more than 600 people - an astounding number.
"At first, I look at it and say, 'How much more could we have helped?', but then I remember the days that we had and they were filled top to bottom. It wasn't like we took a break and ran to the store and took a nap or anything. It was 'go' for eight straight hours both days, which was the max we were allowed to fly," Lowe said.
For crewmembers like Lowe and Morris - it's what they've been working toward for years.
"Just to sit back and think, wow, we did this in this short amount of time, It's an incredible feeling," Morris said.
"It's the whole reason I joined the Guard - was to help our neighbors and help the citizens of the Commonwealth," Lowe said.
And to those citizens who needed help last week, they were the answer to so many desperate prayers.