Chuck Fazio put his plane and pilot skills to use a few weeks ago when he flew a 10-hour medical mercy flight to bring a 61-year-old paraplegic woman named Lois back to Washington, D.C. from Baton Rouge to be reunited with her family.
After flying 4 and a half hours non-stop to Baton Rouge, he landed at a corporate terminal that was packed with a host of rescue pilots, a crowd of hurricane evacuees and Brian Williams of NBC.
“After flying for almost five hours at 16,000 feet, I was a bit fuzzy and the action in that small terminal all seemed to blend together in a surreal kind of way,” Fazio said.
Fazio looked for Lois, but phone service was still sporadic so the best he could do after about 10 tries was to leave a message for the graduate student who had been volunteering at the shelter where Lois lived for the past five days.
After he fueled the plane, with a bill of over $410, he got a call back from the student, who told him Lois was on her way.
“Sure enough, shortly thereafter an ambulance with lights flashing came though the gate, drove out on the ramp and up to my plane. I immediately hopped into the back of the ambulance to introduce myself to the poor woman on the gurney. My God, she looked like she had been through hell,” he said.
Fazio said that with tears in her eyes, Lois told him, "Mr. Fazio, you were sent by God to me."
He said he replied, "Well ma'am, God and I haven't exactly been on speaking terms for many years but don't worry, in about 5 hours, you'll be home to your family."
Fazio said throughout the flight all Lois kept saying was, "You saved my life."
Fazio wasn’t sure how he was going to get this woman laying flat on a stretcher into the back of his airplane, but failure was not an option. Two EMT's and he were able to get Lois into the back of his Bonanza, the inside of which is about the size of a small car.
“Gracious from the beginning to the end, Lois kept saying she was fine although I knew she was in a great deal of pain,” Fazio said.
Once she was settled, Fazio called up the traffic controllers on the radio and was assigned a "lifeguard" call sign which air traffic control uses to identify medical evacuation flights. “For the next 5 hours, as I flew the almost 900 miles back to D.C., I was ‘Lifeguard 727Victor Charlie’ instead of ‘Bonanza 727Victor Charlie,’” Fazio said.
FAZIO RELATED THE STORY Lois told him on the trip out of Loiusiana:
"Lois, despite being in severe pain and having just been through what can only be described as hell on earth, told me a harrowing tale that leads me to believe they're going to find thousands of dead old people in attics soon because I'm sure Lois' story was not uncommon.
Lois, her 83-year-old aunt, a male adult next-door neighbor and his 15-year-old son were advised to not evacuate their house because they had more provisions in there than they did at the Superdome. Knowing Lois was sick, the men left their house and huddled together with the elderly women in the aunt's one-story house.
At 4:30 a.m., they noticed water seeping into their house but at that point, they weren't worried. Forty-five minutes later however, there was four feet of water and an hour after that, Lois was floating on her air mattress with her nose on the ceiling. The fact Lois had an air mattress instead of a regular one is the only reason she floated. The 15-year-old, now in the attic, was tearing through the ceiling dry wall in a desperate struggle to get to Lois. They were somehow able to cut enough ceiling away and pull Lois into the attic but water was rushing in so fast that at this point they realized that if they didn't now get out of the attic, they would all soon drown.
Somehow, they were able to cut a hole in the roof just big enough to get the 15-year-old out. He was able to flag down a boat that happened to have a chain saw in it and an hour and a half later, Lois was in the boat on her way to the Superdome.
Lois said she was in the Superdome less than 24 hours before she was evacuated to a hospital. The only problem was that the hospital in New Orleans was about to be flooded. A day later, she was evacuated yet again to the Maravich Center in Baton Rouge where she spent the next five days flat on her back in a military cot. She passed the time talking to a woman next to her, who passed away that Tuesday morning. The only good news was when Lois got word that Fazio was at the airport, ready to take her away.
FOUR AND A HALF HOURS LATER, Lois and Fazio arrived in local airspace. The local EMT's, after much work, got Lois out of the plane and into their ambulance.
“I climbed into the back to say good-bye to her and after showing such incredible strength all day, she was just overcome with emotion," Fazio said. "Tears were streaming down her face.”
Fazio said Lois kept repeating the phrases "You saved my life" and "God sent you."
“I squeezed her hand and said goodbye," he said. "She looked up at me now, too tired to make a sound, she mouthed the words ‘I love you.’”
After his trip, Fazio put the word out that he would like to go back to help more people, but couldn’t afford the cost of the trip, which was over $800 in fuel alone.
He was able to raise about $3,000 from various sources. Cathy Stohlman gave him some money, as did The Passport Auto dealerships. Joe's Pizza made about 40 subs which they took down to the medical workers; the Washington Area Pilots Association donated about $500; and Dr. Tom Winkler donated a wheelchair.
Fazio was then able to make another trip to evacuate other patients. The first, Miss Vanilla, was an old woman who died two days after he got her to Dallas, where a nursing home had taken her in. The other was an epileptic woman who no other pilot would take. Fazio was able to get her to her sister in Wilmington, N.C. On another trip, he transported about 500 pounds of supplies into Mississippi.
When he left for a trip to Italy, there was still a backlog of 400 people who needed airlifting. He’s hoping to continue his airlifting mission when he returns.
IN THE MEANTIME, schools and individuals have been collecting school supplies to donate to needy students. Rachel Munro, eighth-grade student at Burgundy Farm Country Day School collected 16 backpacks filled with supplies and sent them to Louisiana through the "We've Got Your Back" program.
She also received a request from one of the Fairfax County Public School social workers for backpacks and supplies for at least eight student evacuees who have been placed in Fairfax County schools. She put out a plea to fellow students and was able to collect the necessary supplies.
Peggie Bobo has been collecting backpacks as part of “Project Backpack.” Supplies can be dropped off at Skopp Chiropractic, located at 1701 Belle View Blvd.
Last week at West Potomac, the student government and Key Club collected change at the football game and sent it to help with relief efforts.
Even the animals were remembered when earlier this month, Jill Snow collected leashes, bowls, collars and money to send to the Washington Humane Society. They are busy collecting donations for the animals in New Orleans and are asking local residents to support its efforts to assist in a rescue of animal victims of Hurricane Katrina.
This weekend, Phyllis Patterson is hosting a martini party to help Katrina victims. This is to help a friend and co-worker of hers who has been deeply affected by Katrina. Richard Kalnin's parents are in their 70's and have lost everything in New Orleans. Kalnin ran a successful catering business in Louisiana before moving to Washington a few years ago so guests will enjoy some Louisiana cooking in addition to drinking martinis. In addition, Ann Braziel of Southern Living at Home will be displaying the Fall/Holiday accessories with all profits going to the Red Cross.
MOUNT VERNON-LEE Chamber of Commerce members continue to help and Daniel F. Rinzel, Chamber President said, “I am impressed with the generosity and commitment of our Chamber members and their willing to make substantial contributions for the relief of the Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims. It’s the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from our members.”
The following is the way some of the members have been helping. Smitty’s Building Supply, Inc. hand-carried a check to the American Red Cross in the amount of $47,215. Smitty’s customers donated $21,425; their employees donated $10,790; the company donated $15,000; and donations are still coming in.
VSE Corporation, a local defense contracting firm is matching all employee donations to the relief effort.
At Weichert Realtors, owner Jim Weichert is matching all funds donated by Weichert agents. The CEO of ReMax Allegiance, Charlie Bengal, personally donated $10,000, with additional donations by ReMax Allegiance agents. Coldwell Bankers Residential Brokerage is matching all contributions by agents.
Ourisman Ford and Ourisman Dodge, located on Richmond Highway, were matching all employee contributions up to $10,000.
Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse at Beacon Hill is an official cash donation site for the American Red Cross and Lowe’s will match the first $2 million donated nationwide.
The Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce has encouraged its members with job openings to post those on Web sites accessed by hurricane victims to help with any re-location efforts.