By Staff Sgt. Mary Junell, North Carolina National GuardOctober 2, 2018
MORRISVILLE, N.C. - Late on the evening of Sept. 20, Guardsmen working at the Army Aviation Support Facility 1 (AASF1) in Morrisville, North Carolina got the call that citizens in Kelly, N.C. would need to be evacuated.
Hurricane Florence impacted the Carolina coast less than a week before and moved slowly across the state causing many of the waterways, like the Cape Fear River which runs right past Kelly, to overflow their banks.
During the initial evacuation, two Ch-47 Chinook helicopters and three Black Hawk helicopters moved about 100 people who had gathered at the Centerville Church and took them to Kinston, N.C.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Suggs, a Black Hawk pilot with the North Carolina National Guard 449th Theater Aviation Brigade, was flying one of the helicopters that helped lift people to safety.
Suggs and his crew had just refueled and were preparing to take three NC Fish and Wildlife officers, who had helped with elderly and wheelchair-bound evacuees, back to Elizabethtown, N.C. when they received another mission.
"Around 1:30 [A.M.] another request call came from the Air Boss," Suggs said. "The call was to recon and rescue survivors in the area just east of Kelly, N.C. There was an unknown number of survivors."
Another Black Hawk from the Maryland National Guard launched with Suggs and his team, as well as the three Fish and Wildlife Officers, whose radios are able to communicate with the radios abroad the aircraft.
"With my knowledge of the radio, I switched us to a common frequency, so we would have communications with the officers on the ground," Suggs said.
The two Black Hawk helicopters landed in a dusty parking lot, next to high-tension power lines, at the edge of the rising flood waters. There were four people and a dog waiting.
Suggs said one of the men waiting told him there were more people, but because of the power being out, they were not sure when to meet the helicopter.
That is when Suggs made a quick decision that helped rescue eight more people from the rising waters.
"People who needed help may not have known we were there to help," he said. "When we got to the scene and there were only four, it just seemed like the right thing to do to make sure everyone got out. With it being my decision as the pilot-in-command, I just said 'Let's do it.'"
Seeing there were far fewer people than should have been at the sight, Suggs asked if a truck in the parking lot belonged to one of the men there to be rescued. He said yes.
"I then directed the three Wildlife Officers to go and gather people together and knocking on doors," said Suggs, who was able to keep in contact with the officers because of the radios they were carrying. "The officers would radio to me in the aircraft the number of people they were gathering and moving toward us."
After 30 minutes on the ground, there were now 12 people and six dogs ready to be lifted out. Suggs also called back to mark the location because some people had not wanted to leave. The next day aircraft were called back out to rescue five more people from the same area.
Suggs said it was not hard to get the N.C. Fish and Wildlife Officers or the rest of his crew to agree to go to people's homes.
"The three Wildlife Officers were more than willing to help and so was the gentleman in need," Suggs said. "It was neighbor helping neighbor, or maybe North Carolinians helping North Carolinians."
Aviation assets from N.C. and 13 other states lifted more than 440 people and 127 animals out of harms in the wake of Hurricane Florence.