*It was the bear hug felt around the world. An Air Force pararescue jumper descended upon the cold flood waters of Katrina to save a 3-year-old girl and her family in 2005.
The child, so happy to see the man, unabashedly showed her happiness by wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him the biggest bear hug along with a smile that went ear-to-ear.
To no one’s surprise, that picture was soon everywhere. It popped up on Burger King place mats, AT&T phone cards, a magazine cover.
The photo touched the heart of the rescuer, Staff Sgt. Michael Maroney, himself a father, because of what he says it represented.
“I was a single father trying to raise two boys. I had just gotten back from Afghanistan, and New Orleans was under water,” Maroney, told The Washington Post. “When she hugged me, everything went away. There were no problems in that moment. That meant everything to me.”
“It had been such a rough week; when she wrapped me up in that hug, I was in la-la land,”he said earlier this year. “Nothing else existed.”
Mahoney, now 40, always wondered about the little girl whose name he never got. And he never stopped hoping that he would find her.
And now he has.
Her name is LeShay Brown. And she is now 13 and her family now live about 60 miles outside of New Orleans in Waveland, Miss.
According to People magazine, she and her relatives plan to reconnect with Maroney in a few weeks,
“I can’t wait to meet her to tell her how important she is,” Maroney told the magazine. “In my line of work, it doesn’t usually turn out happily. This hug, this moment, was like — everybody I’ve ever saved, that was the thank you.”
Air Force photographer Veronica Pierce had taken the picture of the little girl hugging Maroney, who had been sent to New Orleans to help assist in rescue efforts in Katrina’s aftermath.
LaShay’s family had been stranded for a whole week before the little girl ended up in Maroney’s MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter. She was so young at the time, she says she doesn’t even remember the hug. But there are plenty of people to remind her.
“I was crying because I was scared … that was the first time I was on a helicopter, the first time I was on a plane and the first time I ever left New Orleans,” LeShay’s mother, Shawntrell Brown, told People magazine. “The helicopter had open doors, so I looked out and you could just see all the water over everything, and it was just too much for me, so she was comforting me.”
“It’s okay,” LeShay told her mother at the time, according to Air Force Times. “We’re safe. Don’t worry.”
Maroney, who now trains pararescuers, thought about LaShay often over the years, and wondered what became of her. So in 2005 he posted the picture on Social Media, but nothing came of it. And he kept looking.
In 2010, he said he even penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey looking for help, but he never got a reply.
But in February of this year Maroney’s story caught the eye of 16-year-old Andrew Goard from Waterford, Mich., who learned about the story and launched the#FindKatrinaGirl campaign. The next month, Air Force Times wrote about Maroney’s quest to find the girl, and the campaign went viral.
“I would love to get another hug and see how she’s doing,” Maroney told The Post at the time, noting that he still had the photo up in his home. “I’d love her to know that there isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her.”
And thanks to technology, the news reached LeShay Brown.
“The whole neighborhood told us they saw LeShay on the news, and everybody told us someone was looking for her,” her mother told People. After she saw the photo, Shawntrell Brown said: “I knew that it was her.”
Read how this beautiful story ended at MSN News.