ORLANDO, Fla. --
As Orlando slowly begins the healing process from the devastation of terror, a celebrity shooting and the loss of two-year-old Lane Graves to an alligator, another loss is on the mind of Airmen here, the passing of a rescue hero, Katrina the beagle.
Fifty miles east, at Patrick Air Force Base, the beagle came to be known as the 920th Rescue Wing’s mascot. On Saturday, she passed away in her Orlando home in the arms of her adoptive dad, Lt. Col. Mike Brasher, 920th rescue helicopter pilot. He and his wife, Melanie, cared for Katrina for 11 years since rescuing her from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in 2005. She was 16-and-a-half.
After the Category 5 twisted through New Orleans flooding everything in its path, it left behind the beagle mom who had just given birth to pups, and was left to fend for herself. Like so many New Orleaners, she was a survivor. Her cage was without a roof allowing her to swim out with the rising waters making it to that 1-10 overpass made famous by so many media outlets showing it half underwater.
Through the windshield of their rescue helicopter is when Brasher and his crew of Air Force rescuers first laid eyes on the beagle. With the rotor wash blowing her long ears back and her body resisting the strong downwind, they were surprised that instead of running away, she was happily wagging her tail at them.
“The entire crew was just amazed with how this little beagle kept running up to the massive helicopter,” said Brasher. With her floppy ears and wagging tail, she would greet them and go back and hang with the pararescuemen. She stayed by their side the minute they would land helping them with the formidable task of evacuating hundreds like her off the causeway to higher ground.
At every turn, the beagle would wag swiftly and gently nudge at the heels of the passengers as they boarded onto the chopper to speed their delivery to safety. She also plunged into the arms of pararescueman retired Chief Master Sgt. Pete Callina as he assessed and directed survivors.
After getting everyone to safety, the Airmen scooped up the beagle and hatched a plan to ensure their furry helper would be cared for as they moved on to the next rescue endeavor. However, they needed gas. As the HC-130 King refueling aircraft positioned for an air-to-air refuel in front of the chopper, the C-130 crew saw an eager beagle peeking through the windshield wagging at them.
The beagle left everyone she wagged at smiling and thinking about her, taking their minds off their own weariness and the horrific devastation.
Finally, the beagle bundle was delivered to a female medic who they made swear her allegiance to safekeeping. Later that night as the rescuers were bedding down, they watched the news of what they were living through. The cameras panned flooded streets, tears and more devastation. Then, it panned a group of displaced pets in an animal shelter. There was their furry friend, same collar and heart-shaped spot over her own big heart.
While she was safe, Brasher felt bad that she was all alone. He called his wife and told her about the beagle and the bond she forged with him and his chopper crew. “Why didn’t you keep her?” questioned Brasher’s wife Melanie. With four other dogs, he didn’t realize he’d be cleared to bring home another. Her question set the wheels in motion on a search and rescue to find that beagle.
Brasher called the animal shelter, but the beagle was swept away and cast from shelter to shelter with hundreds of other displaced pets making the search odds seem impossible.
After flying 24/7 for 21 days straight to rescue 1,043 people and an untold number of pets, the operation drew to a close. The Airmen were sent back home to Florida. While they were called heroes, through it all, there was no question who the real hero was. The bond that formed among the chopper crew and the beagle, kept them going. That bold wag and those floppy wind-blown ears touched their hearts.
Brasher kept on his tedious personal journey to find that little beast and give her a home. After a month into the search and many false leads, he finally had some promising news through Petfinder.com. There was a beagle that ended up in a shelter in Arizona. She suffered some health problems, literally an enlarged heart from heartworm, but she would be all right now that she was getting rescued.
“I remember that first time seeing her again how amazed I was that several miracles came together and she was actually in Orlando. Even though I knew there was a chance that her owners could be found and we would have to return her, I also knew right then and there that I wanted her to be a permanent part of our family,” said Brasher.
The Brashers met their new family member at the Orlando airport and the rest is her story. Her previous owner eventually surfaced, but they agreed it would be best for the beagle if she stayed in her new home with the Brashers. The couple couldn’t be happier.
Through the years, she made regular visits to Patrick Air Force Base putting smiles on everyone’s faces.
Although passed, her huge heart and heroism will never be forgotten. She is survived by a Wing of Airmen who agree that heroes can come in all shapes in sizes in the midst of devastating events.
In the end, “she may have rescued us by teaching us to keep life simple; enjoy it - because life is all about milk bones-apparently; and during these years, we’ve always been amazed at her resilience,” said Brasher.