LOS ANGELES — Ten years ago, Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney hovered over a maelstrom of water, debris and human suffering. New Orleans, a once vibrant mecca for revelers and tourists, was ground zero for impoverished refugees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
By Sept. 6, 2005, Maroney said he had become depressed and felt detached from the city's suffering. He had spent the previous six days caring for coma victims, families with no place to go and refugee drop-offs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency camp at the Louis Armstrong Airport.
Maroney, then a helicopter pararescue specialist with the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, said he was overwhelmed with the human condition. It reminded him of a deployment to Afghanistan.
"I had come back from a bad deployment, real bad," he said. "We didn't pick up anyone alive."
On day seven of the Katrina mission, Maroney saw a family on the roof of their home flagging for help. Strapped in and ready to go, he was lowered from his rescue helicopter to the rooftop. What he did not know was 3-year-old LeShay Brown would lift his spirits higher than a helicopter.
The little girl wrapped herself around him as he began to pull her to safety. Piercing the fog of his deployment, and this mission, was Brown's bright smile, he said.
Once in the helicopter, the frightened little girl kept holding onto him. A combat photographer captured the moment, which became a symbol to the country of heroism amidst devastating circumstances. To Maroney, the moment carried much more meaning.
"When we were going to drop her off she wrapped me in a hug … that hug was everything. Time stopped," Maroney said. "Words fail to express what that hug means to me."
The rescue team eventually delivered Brown and her family safely to the FEMA camp. Although Maroney and the Browns went their separate ways, every year around Sept. 6 Maroney would think about the little girl who had hugged away his burden. Where was she? How was she doing?
In 2010, Maroney decided he had to find the little girl who saved him.
He did not know her name, where she went after Katrina or anything else about her. He turned to social media hoping to find help.
"Every year around the anniversary I would post it (the now famous photo) asking if anyone knew her or if anyone recognized her," he said.
Then last year, help came from Michigan high schooler Andrew Goard who coined the name "Katrina Girl" after messaging Maroney about her.
"He said helping me was his mission, and he blasted everything on social media. I went from a couple hundred likes to thousands," Maroney said. "I went on every talk show there is, telling my story."
The viral hashtag, #findkatrinagirl, formed by Goard had started a nationwide search.
"A couple months ago my son got an Instagram message from one of Brown's friends. They had moved to Tennessee and she kept the same smile as in the picture," Maroney said.
After verifying the identity of Brown, his "Katrina Girl," he said he was dazed and nervous. "I waited a day to text them."
When he finally contacted the family, he and Brown's mother talked about the family's time during Katrina and the years after.
"When I had pulled them out they had gone five days without food," Maroney said.
After being dropped off at the FEMA camp, the Browns were moved to Memphis, Tennessee. They eventually returned to New Orleans and have since moved to Waveland, Mississippi.
Finally, they talked about a reunion. Thanks to the talk show "The Real," Maroney and the Browns were provided that opportunity.
On Sept. 15, Maroney and Brown embraced again. Now 13 years old, Brown is an honor-roll student and plays on the basketball team. Maroney continues his Air Force Reserve career as a master sergeant with the 308th Rescue Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
When not in uniform, Maroney helps young people who want to be pararescue specialists or combat controllers. He also volunteers for several military affiliated organizations.
Since the reunion, the Maroney and Brown families have grown closer.
"I keep the picture of us on my wall," Maroney said.
He and Brown's mother also text each other almost every day, sharing jokes, he added.
"In my line of work you don't get a lot of happy days, so when you get them you grab them and hold onto them for all they're worth," he said.