From North Sanpete Hawk to Army Blackhawk: Former Fairview resident answers call for aid
By John Hales
Sept. 14, 2017
HOUSTON—Just when people were trying to get out of Houston on Saturday, Aug. 26 as Hurricane Harvey stalled and unleashed its torrents, former Sanpete County native Joe Shelley was waiting to go in.
A former North Sanpete Hawk from Fairview, Shelley was part of a Blackhawk helicopter rescue team with the Utah Army National Guard that went to help when Houston let the nation know, “We have a problem.”
Even before the worst of Harvey was over, “we were wheels up, out of Utah, …headed for Texas,” Shelley said on Thursday, Sept. 7, just minutes before he and his crew lifted off from Houston to return home after nearly two weeks of air rescues.
“Between my aircraft and the other aircraft with us, we probably brought 40 people out of harm’s way to safety,” Shelley said.
Compared to the thousands of Houstonians in desperate straits in Harvey’s aftermath, 40 may not sound like a lot—but remember, that was within 10 days. In fact, an interview with Shelley scheduled the night before had to be postponed because a night rescue mission suddenly came up.
Shelley, who grew up in Fairview and joined the Utah National Guard, now lives in Las Vegas but is still attached to a Utah Guard unit. He is a flight paramedic with the Guard’s medivac team.
Those images you on TV of people on hoists lifting people up out of water or off rooftops? That was Shelley (or people like him). “I’m the guy who rides the hoist down. …As a medical person, my job is to be on the hoist, go down, assess the patients and the victims, secure them to the hoist and bring them up.”
Shelley, like everyone on the mission, had responded to the National Guard’s call (in response to a request from FEMA) for volunteers to aid Houston.
Shelley and his team answered so readily they had to had to wait in a safe zone outside of Houston while Harvey finished pummeling the city.
The devastation was clear to Shelley before he even reached Houston.
“I was just surprised at how much water was covering the whole landscape,” he said. “Long before we got to Houston, we could see how the rivers were coming over the banks, farms were flooded, roads were flooded. To me it seemed like an overwhelming task to be able to address. It was huge—monumental in size—how much water is really down here.”
Rescue operations commenced, one hoist rescue after another.
One might expect Shelley to talk about looks of anxious gratitude on the faces of people he saved. He doesn’t. What he does mention makes one realize there’s more than just gratitude in the minds of people being saved.
“There’s a whole mix of emotions you can see on these people’s faces,” Shelley said. “You’ve got these people who are leaving everything behind. They ask, ‘Where are you taking us,’ and we don’t’ know. We’re just getting them out of harm’s way, really.”
And even though it’s their savior, the helicopter is also a bit frightening, especially for the elderly and, Shelley says, “the little ones.”
Imagine it, he says: “You see this great big noisy loud helicopter above you, and I come down on the hoist into the water, and you don’t know how deep it is and you see the desperation on their faces, little kids scared absolutely to death thinking they’re going to be hoisted up.”
One of the victims his sister ship hoisted to safety was a 98-year-old woman.
Shelley couldn’t help everyone he wanted to. “There was an occasion I had to leave an elderly woman in her home. She was bedridden; she couldn’t walk. She was dry, but had to be evacuated. It would have been worse, though, to drag her out into water filled with who knows what chemicals and muck and raw sewage. Shelley’s crew had to leave her in the home, telling her a boat would be coming to pick her up. It was difficult.
“When you see her just begging and pleading, ‘Don’t’ leave me, don’t leave me’—that’s hard to do when they’re looking to you for help, but it was the best thing for her.”
Of all the emotions Shelley observed “the most gratifying thing is being able to see the relief on people’s face when you’re able to help them. It‘s an honor to be able to help and serve these people.
“This is our mission, as the military goes, to be able to take care of people in times of disaster; but it’s really different when you’re training for a mission and when you’re actually doing it.
Everything dissolves in the face of people in such great need, he said. “All party lines go away. Race religion, gender, it doesn’t matter. We’re here to help. That’s what brings me a bit of pride and happiness, is that I was able to help somebody.”