By: Lee Snyder
On September 21, the day after Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico, the sleek, black police helicopter landed at the Sabana Seca Navy base without clearance. Several shaken survivors exited the helicopter before it rose back into the sky, headed back to Toa Baja (Barrio Ingenio) for more stranded people.
In San Juan, the damage was obvious; buildings had collapsed, trees had toppled, roads were destroyed. The damage was severe, but no one knew yet how extensive it was island-wide, as communications were non-existent.
Helicopters from the San Juan-based Puerto Rico Police Department Helicopter Air Unit had gone up that morning after hearing that the town of Toa Baja, about an hour from San Juan, was flooded. The report said that survivors had climbed to their roofs to escape the waters.
In one helicopter, 54-year-old co-pilot Giovanni Brignoni pointed his camera at the destruction and began taking pictures. Later, he posted the images to his Facebook page, getting more than 200,000 views over the next few days.
“The day after the hurricane, the Air Unit was able to get three helicopters in the air, there were about 15 of us, including pilots and flight crews.” Brignoni said.
The water surrounding the houses was 5-7 feet deep in most places. “I remember a man reaching up toward me as I leaned over the edge of the roof,” Brignoni recalled. “He was reaching out a window handing me a baby. I looked below the man and saw the water. It made me think how risky this all was.” That day, the helicopters landed on 40 roofs and the Air Unit rescued 68 people.
In a television interview, Brignoni was asked whether he knew a woman who had just called the show. Giovanni shook his head. He didn’t recognize her name, he said. The interviewer explained that the woman was watching the interview. Brignoni, she said, saved her life when he lifted her into the helicopter from her roof. She remembered reading his name on his uniform. She wanted to thank him.
These are the names of the pilots and crew members of the Puerto Rico Police Department Helicopter Air Unit who repeatedly risked their lives to rescue 68 survivors of Hurricane Maria on September 21, 2017:
Giovanni Brignoni Iglesias, Pilot
Diego Carrasquillo Alvarado, Tactical Observer
Iván Clemente Maldonado, Pilot
Orlando Cortés Rosado, Pilot
Gladys Denizard, Tactical Observer
Sheira Elías Tapia, Tactical Observer
José Fernández Camacho, Pilot
Javier Figueroa Velázquez, Pilot-in-Command
Glenn González Méndez, Pilot
Manuel Mercado Núñez, Tactical Observer
Luis Olivencia, Pilot
Antonio Pérez Maldonado, Tactical Observer
José A. Rivera Quiñones, Pilot
Edwin Rivera Rivera , Tactical Observer
Jesús M. Sierra Ríos, Pilot