In a Mississippi community center Saturday night, dozens of teenagers donned dresses and suits for the Bay High School military ball.
It’s an annual flourish, hosted by the U.S. Air Force’s local Junior ROTC chapter, where young cadets from Bay St. Louis gather to celebrate.
Among them was 14-year-old LaShay Brown, who in 2005 was rescued alongside her family from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Her date, Air Force Master Sgt. Mike Maroney, was the man who saved her life.
The duo made national headlines in 2015 when Maroney, now in his early 40s, launched a social media campaign to track down the girl. He didn’t know her name or where she lived, but had spent the 10 years since Katrina carrying a photo snapped on the day she was rescued.
That photo shows a three-year-old girl, dressed in a pink shirt and wearing pigtails, earnestly wrapping her small arms around Maroney’s neck. Their faces are pressed together. Both are smiling.
The hope her hug gave Maroney that day carried him through the rescue efforts in New Orleans, whereas a member of an elite Air Force pararescue unit he saved dozens of lives. It brought him peace on dark days and during war deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he told the Air Force Times. Years passed, but he couldn’t help wondering what came of the girl.
On the five-year anniversary of the hurricane, Maroney wrote a plea to Oprah Winfrey and on social media, sharing the photo and asking if anyone knew the little girl. Oprah never responded. His online post got 42 likes.
Five years later, in 2015, Maroney tried again. A teenager in Michigan spotted the plea and volunteered space on his Instagram account to promote the search. The chances of finding the girl, Maroney thought, were “one in a trillion.”
“I would love to get another hug and see how she’s doing,” Maroney told The Post at the time. “I’d love her to know that there isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her.”
Fueled by the hashtag #FindKatrinaGirl and hundreds of news reports, Maroney finally found LaShay in Waveland, Miss. The teen had few memories of the rescue, but her mother’s recollection was vivid.
“I was crying because I was scared,” Shawntrell Brown told People magazine in 2015.
It was the woman’s first time in a helicopter, and through the open doors she could see the water swallowing her home town. But LaShay, Brown recalled, was calm. “She was comforting me,” Brown said.
In an interview with the Air Force Times, Maroney remembered LaShay as fearless that day, excitedly pointing out her home and school from inside the helicopter. The hug came later at the airport, once they were back on safe ground. Veronica Pierce, the photographer who captured it, gave him a copy later that night and he soon saw it plastered on military coins, Burger King place mats and AT&T phone cards.
It would appear again, 10 years later, on the cover of People’s “American Heroes” collector’s edition, after Maroney and LaShay reunited on the television talk show “The Real” and recreated the hug photo.
“You have a beautiful smile and it stuck with me,” Maroney told LaShay through tears. “You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
In the year and a half since, the “Katrina Girl” and the man who saved her have formed an unexpected friendship. Maroney visited LaShay in Mississippi and taught the teen to swim, reported People. LaShay went to a San Antonio Spurs game with Maroney in Texas. Once a week, the two talk on the phone.
Before their reunion, LaShay wanted to be a lawyer. Now, like Maroney, she plans to join the military and is using Junior ROTC as a way to learn about the field.
“It was very interesting and a challenge . . . because I had never done it before,” LaShay told People about JROTC. “I knew if I joined I would have help from Mike along the way if I needed it.”
When LaShay had the opportunity to invite an escort to her military ball, she could think of “nobody else” but Maroney.
“It would be more special to him,” she told TV station WLOX at the dance.
Maroney told People he “would do anything to repay the hug to LaShay and her family.”
On Saturday, the two arrived to the community center with locked arms, LaShay now towering above Maroney.
“If not for her hug and her smile on that day,” Maroney told WLOX, “my life would probably be a lot different.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler