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Rescue Swimmers the Heroes of New Orleans

One week after Hurricane Katrina plowed into the Gulf Coast of the United States, search and rescue operations go on. Day and night, the men and women of the Coast Guard and Armed Forces continue to rescue trapped residents. VOA's Jim Bertel has more on the rescuers, these unsung heroes who risk their lives for others.

In the past few days, hundreds of thousands have been evacuated from New Orleans. And yet thousands more are believed to still be trapped in the city's neighborhoods and outlying areas. The men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard are uniquely trained to get them out.

"The Coast Guard is in the service of saving lives and that's the one thing I've always wanted to do,” says Petty Officer Joel Sayers, “When I saw there was a possibility of being a rescue swimmer, it just gave me a great opportunity to get out there and do that."

Hurricane Katrina has given Joel more opportunity than he ever imagined. He and hundreds of rescuers have spent the past week saving lives.

His fellow Rescue Swimmer Scott Rady says these missions are very different from his past rescues. "We're use to being in big seas and taking people off fishing boats. But this is way different. Now you're taking someone off of a rooftop."

Petty Officer Sayer says the urban environment of crisscrossing power lines, contaminated water and desperate survivors makes their work much harder.

"The problem is houses with very, very steep rooflines, shingles, things flying off. There's a lot of debris. There are just so many different obstacles you run into, and so many different dangers."

One of his most difficult missions was saving a paraplegic man trapped in his house.

"I looked around the house to see if I could knock out a vent. And there was no way to get in. I couldn't take him under, and I couldn't take him through."

Using an ax, he broke through the roof.

"When I got done cutting through the roof, I was the happiest man alive because it was hot and I was tired. But the look on his face was amazing."

That amazing rescue was just one of many.

"I lost count after the first day. There are just so many -- because we do anything from pulling people from the water, taking people from the land, medivacs from hospitals."

The Coast Guard, along with the Navy and the National Guard, continue to search house-to-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, looking for the living among the growing number of dead.

Their work is exhausting, and yet Rescue Swimmer Sara Faulkner and her colleagues push on. "I don't think anyone has complained since this thing has started,” she says. “And you know all of our crews are either at home resting, flying until they can't fly anymore, or they're on standby to go out again."

Their mission is to save lives; that is what keeps them going. But it is the images of death that will haunt Joel Sayers.

“I try not to describe it. It has been quite a catastrophe. And we will continue to go out and will do the best that we possibly can to make sure we save as many lives as possible.”

With the city still flooded and thousands of people unaccounted for, the work of the rescuers could go on for many more days.