ROSE CITY, Texas — Sgt. 1st Class Zach Kesler opened the left-side sliding door of the Blackhawk helicopter and swung his legs over the edge. Specialist Curtis Jeffs did the same on the right side.
A thick odor of oil from the saturated and shuttered refineries below filled the air rushing through the rear cabin.
The two Utah Army National Guard members scoured the flood-ravaged landscape Thursday for people in distress. After a few passes over east Texas neighborhoods inundated with chocolate brown water covered in a petroleum sheen, the crew spotted a man signaling for help on a railroad track.
Chief Warrant Officer Joe Galbraith positioned the helicopter over the tracks, while Chief Warrant Officer Elliot Hickman navigated. They looked for a safe landing spot, but with power lines and other hazards, opted for an air rescue. The Blackhawk hovered while Jeffs and Capt. Chris Stephens positioned the hoist to lower Kesler to the ground.
Several minutes later, Jeffs reeled up the cable to which a thin, barefoot woman wearing a blue tank top and white shorts was clinging but securely fastened. A slight, bearded man in a blue T-shirt and cutoff jeans followed the same vertical 150-foot path from the ground a short time later. His flip-flops came off as he crawled aboard.
Utah Army National Guard fly in search of flooding victims in a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after Tropical Storm Harvey in Beaumont, Texas on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Finally, Jeffs hoisted Kesler and Phil Drager, a search-and-rescue specialist who had signaled for help, in tandem aboard the helicopter.
Such was the scene, five days after Hurricane Harvey slammed the Gulf Coast and lingered over the area, dropping more than 50 inches of rain that has led to historic flooding in Houston and surrounding towns.
Drager discovered Kent and Hersey Kirk living in water 4 feet deep — and rising — while making checks on the ground in tiny Rose City near Beaumont. He said he nearly had to order them out of the house.
“I didn’t know it was going to be that high,” Kent Kirk, 58, said, after the helicopter landed at Beaumont airport. “If it’s going to go 5 more feet, yeah, we wanted to be rescued. We came voluntarily. They didn't drag us out.”
Still, Kirk said he and his wife could have lived on an air mattress atop the house's flat roof if necessary.
Kent Kirk took a drag on an inhaler once he was settled into a seat on the helicopter. Scraped and bruised, Hersey Kirk, 59, complained of back pain and a sprained ankle. An ambulance took the couple for medical care.
But the Kirks' future after leaving their home is uncertain, especially if the rising flood swallows their house like it has so many others in the disaster plain.
“We don’t have nowhere to go,” Kent Kirk said.
A nine-member Utah National Guard team on two Blackhawk helicopters arrived in southeast Texas last week to conduct search-and-rescue operations out of the Sugar Land Regional Airport, about 20 miles southwest of Houston.
Their deployment is open-ended. They don't know when they're going home.
Catastrophic flooding in and around Beaumont and Port Arthur — perhaps some of worst caused by Harvey — where the Utah National Guard members are patrolling goes on for miles and miles, and looks from the air that it will never recede.
Water swelled to the rooftops of houses scattered through thick woods. Acre after acre of water-logged pasture and farmland stretched to the horizon. Cows huddled together in a field. A horse plodded through water up to its belly.
Oil slicks painted a purple hue on the water's surface. Submerged 18-wheelers and cars, some with their lights still on, littered desolate companies and neighborhoods. People trudged along the few dry roads dragging luggage and plastic bags stuffed with clothes.
"I feel for these guys down here. This is a devastating situation for them. This is the mission that we train for. We drop everything at a moment's notice," said Sgt. Joe Shelley.
In the past two days, the two helicopters have lifted about 40 people to safety, mostly from waist-deep water, though at least one person was neck deep.
"Every time I land, I'm prepared to swim,” Shelley said.
Kesler has witnessed a range of emotions — fear, disbelief, relief — among the people, including a 98-year-old woman, whom the Blackhawk crew has rescued over the past two days. Airlifted evacuees arrive at a collection point at a local church or store with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.
“I've seen them trying to grapple with all these different emotions of walking away from everything they have and then they're about to take a ride on a helicopter,” he said.
"A lot of people would ask us, "Where are you taking me?' and we just say, 'We don’t know.'”