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TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2005
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Angel Flight Southeast pilot Blake Mathis, far right, of Huntsville unloaded emergency supplies he carried to Gulfport, Miss., on Saturday. The unidentified men helping him were among the many volunteers getting supplies to the people who need it.
DAILY Photo by Eric Fleischauer
Angel Flight Southeast pilot Blake Mathis, far right, of Huntsville unloaded emergency supplies he carried to Gulfport, Miss., on Saturday. The unidentified men helping him were among the many volunteers getting supplies to the people who need it.

CARRIED ON ANGELS' WINGS
A day with bucket brigade: Getting help to Gulfport

By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Staff Writer

eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

David Knies, 23, does not know who donated the stack of emergency supplies he found in an airplane hangar Saturday. Nor does he know who received the supplies after he dropped them in Gulfport, Miss.

David Knies, a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight Southeast, after delivering goods at the Gulfport airport Saturday.
DAILY Photo by Eric Fleischauer
David Knies, a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight Southeast, after delivering goods at the Gulfport airport Saturday.
He knows his pilot's license gives him a unique ability — and, by his reckoning, a duty — to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Knies is a pilot with Angel Flight Southeast. More accurately, though, he is one member of a bucket brigade.

His function — one he shares with many — became clear Saturday at the Gulfport airport.

As he coasted his overloaded plane above the splintered remnants of homes, banking toward the runway, people milled haphazardly on the tarmac like ants in a disturbed nest.

When Knies opened the door to his cargo, an amazing thing happened. The aimless ants formed a straight line with no command, no verbalized consensus.

The Rev. David Harris of the New Life Church in Cumming, Ga., helps Gulfport, Miss., resident Paul Minzey carry furniture to the street Saturday. Minzey sports rabbit ears he found in his hurricane-ravaged house.
AP Photo by Steve Helber
The Rev. David Harris of the New Life Church in Cumming, Ga., helps Gulfport, Miss., resident Paul Minzey carry furniture to the street Saturday. Minzey sports rabbit ears he found in his hurricane-ravaged house.
Just committed people forming a line between the plane and a truck. Diapers, Gatorade, T-shirts and bottled water slid from hand to hand with conveyor-belt efficiency.

Gun-toting police stood shoulder-to-shoulder with earnest women and unshaved men, experienced pilots and somebody's grandpa, all laboring under a blazing Mississippi sun.

No officer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency took control, or even showed up, but that was OK. The group had a leader — the collective need of those who survived Hurricane Katrina.

Knies was in the bucket brigade that got Pampers from plane to truck, but his entire mission Saturday — a mission that took him from Huntsville to Gulfport and back — was one position in the bucket brigade.

Arriving at a Huntsville hangar early Saturday morning, he saw the stack of supplies. His job — a job that paid nothing for his time or fuel or airport fees — was to get those supplies to other volunteers waiting in Gulfport.

No Gulfport resident hugged or cried to him with relief. Those things happened, no doubt, but only the last bucket holder in the line witnessed it.

Clark Kent aura

Knies, who has been a pilot since he was 17 and is on the board of directors of Angel Flight Southeast, has a Clark Kent aura about him. His day job is at Advantage Travel in Huntsville.

The paisley tie comes off, however, when disaster strikes. Both global disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, and personal ones, like the woman he transported to chemotherapy treatments for almost three years, transform him from travel agent to hero.

The term "hero" is overused, but Knies and the 118 Angel Flight Southeast pilots in Alabama may deserve it.

Take Saturday. Knies owns a plane, but he lent it to another Angel Flight pilot who needed it. He then rented a plane and paid for the 45 gallons of fuel to make the round trip to Gulfport. He also paid to fuel his own plane, the one someone else was flying.

Granted, he could not have paid much for the rental. As his nervous passenger discovered, this was a puddle jumper. Knies crammed at least 500 pounds of supplies into the single-prop plane, and it creaked in protest with every box.

"I'll tell you one thing," Knies said, after winning the battle to get its wheels off the asphalt. "This thing will never fly with more weight than this. It's acting like a turtle."

The importance of the bucket brigade — the urgency of its mission — has stared at us through TV screens.

Sarah Schwimerer, an employee at the Gulfport airport, gathered information about incoming and outgoing flights from under a dining fly because the hurricane damaged her office.

On the runway next to her shelter, heat curtains shimmered, providing a mirage-like vision of buildings laid low.

Schwimerer's home, two blocks from the Gulf, crumbled under Katrina's malice. Schwimerer escaped only because of a last-minute decision to sit this storm out by going inland where she stayed with others in the main airport hangar.

That was the same hangar that Saturday was still missing most of its roof.

Haggard from work and worry, the woman, in her mid-50s, found a smile as she talked about her trek to see her house. It was a contribution to the miles of demolition rubble that marked the edge of Katrina's tide surge.

Face-to-face with alligator

That's not the funny part, she explained. The funny part was that a ship carrying poultry and pork lost its cargo to the storm. Where her house once stood is a smelly litter of decaying flesh. Holding her nose as she looked for valuables, she confronted an 8-foot alligator munching on waterlogged fowl.

Her smile ended abruptly as she recalled that the stench was not entirely from chicken wings and pork chops. An unidentified corpse lay in her yard. Interview over and face gone hard, the woman returned to her job.

The first to greet Knies at the airport was Gail Evertz, a volunteer. She hailed from Manhattan and was shuttling from there so she could help on weekends. Blond hair crammed beneath an NYPD cap, beautiful tan accentuated by the sweat and grime of hard work, she marked her clipboard and beamed with appreciation.

In her 30s, Evertz was one of several at the airport from a group called Hands-On USA. They found their calling when responding to the December 2004 tsunami in Thailand. The group of bucket-passers realized they had made a difference and began looking for others to help.

Asked why she is committing time and money to strangers in Mississippi, she shrugged. "The e-mail went out, so I came."

Worse than Thailand

"The mass and utter devastation is worse than what we saw in Thailand, maybe, because this area was more developed," Evertz said. She said the tragedy hit her hardest when she climbed to the top of the storm-surge rubble and, from that perch, realized it extended as far as she could see.

Hands-On USA, Evertz said, has a carefully delineated spot in the bucket brigade. "We're a rapid-response, recovery-and-relief agency with no red tape," she said. Rapid responders have unique difficulties, such as finding a place to sleep.

"We stayed in a barn at first," Evertz said. "Now we are staying at the Beauvoir United Methodist Church (in Biloxi)."

Another member of the group, Suzanne Stahl, responded to the e-mail by taking leave from her banking job in Phoenix. Her blond hair was bound under a Special Forces cap. She bounced from truck beds to airplane lockers, burning with energy that persuaded others to help, though she never asked.

Like Evertz, Stahl spoke casually. "This is my duty," she said.

Pointing at Stahl, another volunteer whispered that she had arrived immediately after the hurricane, bags stuffed with $20 bills and telephone cards. Before finding a place to put her own bags, she distributed her booty to dozens of numb survivors.

Stahl lacked some of Evertz's battle hardness, though. Asked why she was sacrificing for strangers, her gaiety crumbled into exhausted sobs.

"They need us," Stahl said finally, flicking her tears away like gnats. "They need so much. I just can't leave."

Humility, love

There is a humility that goes with the bucket-brigade mindset. Knies and the others are cogs in a system ordered by love. No job is too little, no request petty, Knies explained as he flew his passenger on the return leg to Huntsville in a plane that was, thankfully, relieved of its burden. Amidst the hundreds of pounds of supplies he has carried to the coast were dozens of T-shirts and cases of soap.

"Somebody asked me if it made sense to take T-shirts and soap by plane. Why not save the space on planes for more urgent needs?"

He fiddled with the broken autopilot. "What I said to him was, the firemen have been begging for T-shirts for more than a week. The survivors have been asking for soap that long, too. What is more important than getting them what they want?"

He jiggled the radio cord and got a burst of static.

"These people had a house one day and none the next. They had a friend one day and none the next. Who am I to judge what they need most? If they want it, I'm going to do my best to make sure they get it."

On the Net: www.angelflight.org; www.handsonusa.org.

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