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'Katrina girl' found: Air Force vet to reunite with girl he rescued 10 years ago

After a years-long search, an Air Force veteran has found the young mystery girl he rescued during Hurricane Katrina.
/ Source: TODAY

An Air Force veteran’s search for the young mystery girl whose embrace gave him hope during his Hurricane Katrina rescue missions has ended.

NEW ORLEANS -- A young Hurricane Katrina survivor hugs her rescuer, Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney, after she was relocated to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, La., on Sept. 7. Sergeant Maroney is a pararescueman fromm the 58th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Veronica Pierce)A1C Veronica Pierce / U.S. Air Force

Mike Maroney will be reunited with the three-year-old girl seen in a picture widely circulated in 2005 shortly after he picked her up, along with her mother, in a helicopter. Maroney never got the name of the pigtailed girl, whose electrifying smile and warm embrace burned into his memory for years.

“About a month prior to Katrina hitting, I just got back from Afghanistan and it was my worst deployment. We didn’t pick up anybody alive,” he told

“Then in New Orleans, I couldn’t do anything except pick people up and take them to the airport, and it didn’t feel like it was enough, so when that girl gave me the hug, it came at the right moment," he said. "It was all I needed. I just needed the human contact, of someone saying it’s okay. That’s what her hug said — it’s okay. I’m fine. I’m alive. We’re good.”

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Now a reservist, Maroney was an Air Force pararescuer during Katrina, and the girl was among those he helped from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. A military photographer captured the now-iconic photo after Maroney dropped her family off at the city's airport.

The girl has been identified as LaShay Brown, by both People magazine, which first reported the discovery, and Air Force Times, which spoke to the girl via text.

Brown, now 13, doesn’t remember Maroney, but said she looked forward to meeting him.

"I was a child then,” she told the paper. “But now I realize that he gave me the best thing that ever happened to me by taking me out of that situation. So I would say thank you."

Brown now lives in Waveland, Mississippi, with her family. Maroney, who lives in San Antonio, Texas, said he doesn't know exactly when the two will finally reunite in her person. Both families are struggling financially, he said, but he hopes to meet up with the Browns within the next several weeks as part of a road trip he wants to take with his sons, who are 13 and 11.

"I want my family to meet her family," he said. "That was a reason why she stuck in my head so much. When we were talking [in 2005], she said 'I’m 3, almost 4.' And I said, 'My son is 3, almost 4.' So it was a bond or link."

The Air Force Times first reported Maroney’s effort to search for the girl in the picture in an article published in March.

That story helped launched a social media campaign and a #FindKatrinaKid hashtag shared thousands of times.

Follow writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.