CLEARWATER, FLORIDA — Shortly after Hurricane Ian’s eyewall passed over southwest Florida, search and rescue teams mobilized to begin the difficult work of recovering those trapped in their homes and neighborhoods as flood waters continued to rise.
Zach Loesch, Aviation Survival Technician 2nd Class, and his team from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater set up a staging area in southwest Florida on September 26, before Ian made landfall.
Days into the recovery mission, Loesch rescued more than 18 survivors. “When someone thinks they're going to die, it’s a really crazy feeling to know you're the reason they’re not going to die anymore,” Loesch said. “That's why I really love being there for people in their darkest moments.”
A husband and avid disc golfer, Loesch always wanted to become a Navy SEAL. Instead, he became a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. But during his rescue missions off the coast of Fort Myers, Loesch became a hero that so many will never forget.
After being lowered from a Coast Guard helicopter, Loesch entered the home of an elderly couple who were trapped inside. He kicked down a wall and rescued a disabled woman. After hoisting the couple to safety, he returned to bring up her specialized wheelchair, attaching it to his body as his crew reeled him up.
The crew experienced distressing times during their missions as well. “It's hard to enter a house and find out you’re too late,” Loesch said. “Entering a home, looking for someone, and finding out they’re not alive is one of the scariest parts of the job,” he added. Several members of Loesch’s crew saw dead bodies during their rescue missions.
Loesch tries to picture himself in the same situation when rescuing others. He said it’s hard to imagine taking one last look at your home that you may never see again.
After hearing of the heroic rescue, President Biden called several members of the Coast Guard over the phone, including Zach Loesch. “I told him how proud of him I was and thanked him for all the work he and his Coasties are doing to save lives,” Biden said, according to a statement by the White House.
Loesch felt honored to get a call from the President, but said he would soon be involuntarily separated from the service for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine. He didn’t mention the imminent discharge because he didn’t want to ruin the call with Biden.
“I don’t feel that I deserved that call because I was doing the same thing everyone else was doing,” Loesch said. “I just happened to be the guy who found the lady in a wheelchair.”
RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION DENIED
Loesch said he requested a religious exemption, but the Coast Guard denied it. He then submitted an appeal, which was also denied. Out of more than 1,200 COVID-19 vaccine accommodation requests, the Coast Guard has only accepted around 12, and those were service members in the process of retiring or voluntarily separating from the service.
“If I had asked any of the people I saved if they wanted to come with me even though I am not vaccinated, every single one of them would have said yes.”