The US Coast Guard aircrew looked down, and there it was, scrawled in the Sanibel Island sand: HELP.
It was past sunrise on Thursday, Sept. 29, and Hurricane Ian had swept across the Florida barrier island, bringing with it 150 mph gales and a 15-foot sea surge. Aviation Survival Technician 3rd Class Brian Gilligan, a 23-year-old elite rescue swimmer from Air Station Clearwater, told Coffee or Die Magazine a house on stilts stood next to the mayday message.
The entire first floor was completely underwater. And over the next three days, Gilligan’s team would rescue the survivors there, and a whole lot more.
A fleet of six US Coast Guard MH-60T Jayhawk and MH-65D Dolphin helicopters from Clearwater; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Traverse City, Michigan, descended on Sanibel Island, saving 255 lives and assisting in the rescues of 31 trapped people by Saturday, not to mention 39 dogs, a dozen cats, and one snake.
“Yes, I hoisted a snake,” Gilligan said. “We put a rather large — what I was told was a ‘harmless snake’ — into a duffel bag, zipped it up, and then the survivor and his pet snake went up in the basket together.”
Gilligan’s pilot, Lt. Blake Brostrom, told Coffee or Die there was no asterisk on the Coast Guard’s pet rescue policy, so they try to save all creatures, great or small, that a family loves.
“Be mindful that a lot of these people have literally lost everything,” Brostrom, 36, said. “If there’s any way possible, we’re going to try to accommodate them to at least have their pets.”
Brostrom described a hellscape left in the Category 4 hurricane’s wake. Houseboats that usually could find refuge in the Intracoastal Waterway were flung inland by a sea surge nearly two stories high. He recalled a McClaren sports car crumpled against a home and a new Corvette destroyed.
A section of the Sanibel Causeway Bridge had collapsed, cutting the island off from the peninsula. Thousands of residents never evacuated because forecasters hadn’t put their community in Ian’s path.
Now they were trapped.
Brostrom remembered his Coasties joining the US Army National Guard Chinook pilots in turning a roadway intersection into a landing zone. His first pickup: three adults, two kids, and eight dogs — three French bulldogs, three dachshunds, a golden retriever, and a hound.
“I knew it was a hound because I heard the very distinct howl barking in the back,” Brostrom said. “I think I broke the record for dogs in the aircraft. It was a pretty wild day.”
A US Army veteran from Honolulu, Hawaii, who flew Black Hawks in Afghanistan, Brostrom told Coffee or Die that war and hurricanes create “two different kinds of chaos.”
His job was to help order the chaos, but he couldn’t have even tried to do that without Coast Guard mechanics toiling throughout the night.
“Even though they’re not out there on the missions doing stuff, their job is equally important because these birds can’t fly without the proper maintainers,” Brostrom said. “They deserve a huge shoutout as well.”
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