Freddy Dawley remembers the night an angel flew him and his newborn daughter to a Columbia hospital when she was near death.
“This little white, blond-headed girl with a flowing gown and little feathered wings on her back; yeah, that may be an angel. But that ain’t the angel I saw that night,” Dawley, 62, said. “She is about 12 or 15 feet tall. She’s got wings of about, I’d say, maybe 60-foot span. She’s got a very bulbous nose, and it’s green.
“Matter of fact, she’s green all over,” he continued. “And she’s got ‘U.S. Army’ wrote on both sides of her.”
That angel was a military helicopter that flew Dawley, his newborn daughter Teresa and some neonatal staff members to Richland Memorial Hospital from a hospital in Lancaster after Teresa inhaled amniotic fluid during birth and stopped breathing.
“Basically, she drowned in delivery,” Dawley said.
Teresa Dawley, now 37 and living in Florence, heard the story many times growing up, but said she and her father talked about it again last weekend on Father’s Day.
“It never really occurred to me to find them,” she said of the two pilots. “We started saying it would be really cool to find where those guys are.”
That prompted her efforts to get the story out there, first on Facebook and then to news outlets.
“There’s somebody out there who’s been telling the same story for 37 years from the other point of view,” she said.
‘Off into the night’
When Dawley and his wife welcomed their daughter into the world the night of Dec. 3, 1981, their joy and jubilation quickly turned to fear and urgency when doctors at Springs Memorial Hospital in Lancaster realized the baby wasn’t breathing.
The doctor, who was using a tube to suck amniotic fluid from baby Teresa’s lungs, wanted her airlifted to Columbia’s Richland Memorial Hospital, but a nurse said all the medical helicopters were busy, Dawley said.
“I said find me a helicopter and find me one right now,” Dawley recalled the doctor telling the nurse.
It was then, in that delivery room with his wife and their newborn daughter, who was clinging to life, that Dawley said he prayed: “Lord, I need help. This baby needs help. Send us some help.”
The doctor continued working on Teresa and got her breathing again, and the nurse returned to say that a helicopter was about to touch down in Columbia to pick up the neonatal staff and bring them to Lancaster, Dawley said.
He recalled medical staff loading the gurney and incubator into a green military helicopter that had landed on the helipad outside the Lancaster hospital. As he stood at the door to the chopper, one of the pilots asked who he was, and he replied that he was the baby’s father and he wanted to go with her.
“And all in one breath, he looked at me and said, ‘Sir, I cannot give you permission to get on this aircraft,’” Dawley said. The pilot then pointed to a seat and added, “Sit right there and put the seat belt on.”
After the helicopter rose into the air and completed a 360-degree turn, “we proceed to fly off into the night,” Dawley said.
During the trip to Columbia, one of the medical staffers grabbed the pilot’s shoulder.
“They have some words back and forth for a minute,” Dawley said. “Then this person sits back down, and the engine of that helicopter revved up, and we go.” The helicopter noticeably sped up.
Doctors and nurses were outside waiting on the helipad at Richland Memorial Hospital, where Dawley said the chopper landed hard. As they wheeled his daughter into the emergency room, he heard one of the staffers say, “Yeah, we’ve got less than two minutes of oxygen left.”
The mysterious caller
The staff working on Teresa saved her, and she ended up spending six days in the Columbia hospital, her father said.
When Dawley came in to visit her one day, a nurse told him someone called to check on Teresa. The caller didn’t provide a name and didn’t know Teresa’s name.
“They didn’t have a name, but they wanted to check in on the baby that came in on the Army helicopter,” Dawley said. He and the nurse believed it was one of the pilots, since only they would know that a baby was brought in on a military helicopter but still not know her name.
Even after Dawley and his wife took their daughter home, they didn’t try to locate the pilots.
“I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble,” he said. “If they did, in fact, get away with it and the Army didn’t know about it, I was not about to stir the pot and get the guys in trouble who saved her life.”
‘An entirely different story’
To this day, the identities of the pilots who flew the helicopter that December night in 1981 remain unknown.
Fort Jackson officials told The State the helicopter likely wasn’t one of theirs.
The S.C. Army National Guard reached out to some of its retired Army aviators who served at the time, and they indicated this mission was likely flown by the 498th Medical Company-Air Ambulance, which had a detachment in the Columbia area, National Guard officials said. That unit has since been inactivated.
Dawley and his daughter want to find the pilots and thank them.
“Without those two men, I truly do not believe that I would have my oldest daughter,” he said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you guys had not done what you did that night, this would be an entirely different story.”