John Keller is a 6-foot-8, 250-pound Marine who found himself in the middle of the most catastrophic natural disaster in American history and responded by personally rescuing over 240 elderly and disabled people from a partially-submerged apartment building – not only protecting the terrified residents from looters, thugs, and rushing floodwaters, but also making sure that they received all the food and medical supplies they needed until he was able to single-handedly evacuate them on a boat he'd hotwired and then piloted through the most dangerous waters of downtown New Orleans.
After attending an elite boarding school where he served as class President and captain of the Yacht Team, John S. Keller Jr. went to Xavier University to study marine biology, but dropped out in 1990 so he could serve as a radio operator in the 1st Recon Battalion, 1st Marines during Operation Desert Storm. Now, for those of you who don't know what Marine Recon is all about, these are the motherfuckers the Marines send in first whenever they want to kill the shit out of someone. Think about that for a second – this guy was part of a balls-out six-man SpecOps team that charged head-first into Iraqi Republican Guard units, and he fought so well with a radio strapped to his back that the Corps cited him for bravery under fire. So he had to be pretty damn tough. After he finished serving his country, Lance Corporal Keller came home, finished his degree, opened a successful commercial development firm, and spent his free time teaching underprivileged inner-city juvenile delinquents how to scuba dive and then working with them at soup kitchens to feed the homeless. Yes, you read all of that correctly, and I am not hyperbolizing the shit out of it just for emphasis.
On the morning of August 30, 2006, John Keller woke up to the sound of three assholes trying to kick in the front door of his apartment. The night before, Keller had weathered the most destructive natural disaster America ever faced – Hurricane Katrina – and the morning after somehow surviving the destruction of the New Orleans levees, this former Marine now had to deal with the fact that a trio of twenty-something thugs was about to take advantage of the post-destruction anarchy, bust in his door with their boots, kick the shit out of him, and rob him blind.
What they weren't expecting to find on the other side of the door was a Marine Recon operative built like Jaws from Moonraker. Keller timed the crashing sound of kicks against his still-closed door, threw it open at the exact moment he predicted the next kick was going to come, and then when the three goons stumbled into his apartment Keller kicked the shit out of them, dragged them out of the apartment complex, and threw them out the front door into 11 feet of fetid standing water.
For most rational human beings, looking out into the submerged watery ruins of mid-town New Orleans and seeing the carnage, anarchy, and hellish insanity swirling around in every direction would make us want to grab the first rowboat we could get our hands on and sail the fuck out of town like we were fleeing the zombie apocalypse. But, even though John Keller was a USMC combat diver who happened to own a kayak, this thought barely crossed his mind – all he could think about is how he wasn't about to leave the 170 elderly and disabled residents of his semi-doomed apartment building to the mercy of looters like the ones he'd just kicked the shit out of.
"I couldn't have lived with myself knowing I could have saved everybody in here but I left.
You know what I'm saying? How could I have done that?"
The situation was bad. The American Can Apartment Building – Keller's home – was under 11 feet of water, and the flood level was rising a couple inches every hour or so. He was in the middle of an aquatic wasteland that could only be accessed by boat or helicopter, and there were fish, sea turtles, and poisonous aquatic snakes were swimming through the downstairs lobby. There were 244 people sheltered inside the structure – 170 residents, plus 74 people from the low-income housing projects nearby who took refuge in the five-story American Can building when their own homes went the way of Atlantis. Of this group, about half of them were over the age of 65, a quarter of them were confined to wheelchairs, and another quarter of them were seriously fucking sketchy dudes from the projects who couldn't really be trusted (the three men Keller had just tossed out the window were from this group). His people desperately needed oxygen, insulin, and other medications, not to mention basic food and water, and one of the women living there was nine months pregnant and about to deliver her kid at any moment. As the most charismatic, imposing, resourceful man in the entire building, they all looked to Keller for support and guidance, and he knew the people there wouldn’t make it through this disaster without his help. He wasn't about to abandon them.
John Keller's first step was to collect all the guns in the building and organize a group of people who would defend the building against marauding bands of armed looters. His chief concern was with the restaurant located on the ground floor of the building – the walk-in freezer there was still operational, and since all of their perishables were housed there it needed to guarded at all times – and on more than one occasion John Keller needed to kick his Marine Corps training into high gear to fight off bands of guys trying to steal his shit. Then he painted requests for aid on the roof by cracking open a fire extinguisher and using the powder to scrawl notes that could be seen by passing aid helicopters.
Still, despite mentioning that he needed food and water for 200+ residents, there were no supply drops for 4 days. If Keller wanted to keep his people alive, he needed to resort to drastic measures.
With medical supplies and food dwindling, and resupply looking further and further like a pipe dream, John Keller fucking swam to the grocery store, tied together nine coolers filled with food, charcoal and supplies, swam back with the stocked-as-hell coolers strapped to his back, set up a couple charcoal grills, and cooked food for everyone there. Then he collected all the prescription bottles from his tenants, broke out his kayak, and paddled 7 hours through ultra-deadly waters filled with unseen dangers to get to the local hospital and have the prescriptions filled. The hospital told him there was nothing they could do – they already had 45 dead patients in the building and were low on every possible medication. When he heard that, he paddled over to the US military aid station and tried to sweet-talk a Blackhawk crew chief into coming and taking a look at the situation for himself, but that didn't work out either. Orders were orders.
Oh yeah, and as if all this bullshit wasn't enough, Keller also had to deal with Dawn of the Dead-style internal bickering among his tenants, as the scared, hungry residents got jumpy, angry, and irritable. He tried his best to keep his tenants optimistic and hopeful, routinely telling them that help was on the way even though he damn well knew it wasn't, but even so he still repeatedly had to break up disputes – generally through reason, but occasionally through threats and sheer intimidation of the more belligerent parties. Either way, it was becoming painfully obvious that the only way to keep his people alive was to get them the hell out of the disaster area as soon as possible.
Unable to get the attention of the National Guard, on the fifth day John Keller started picking up all the old people in wheelchairs, carrying them up five flights of stairs to the roof, and then setting them out there so the Guard could see exactly what the hell was going on. That did the trick – once he started putting old folks in wheelchairs up there, the Army started dropping medicine, food, and potable water. Keller got the crew chief's attention, convinced him the urgency of the situation, organized a complete helicopter evacuation, carried 70 disabled and elderly people up to the roof for evac, and then learned that the roof was set at such a weird angle that it was impossible to land a chopper there, and that a helicopter evac would actually be impossible (sorry about that).
This, of course, still failed to stop John Keller from saving the lives of all 244 people under his control. Fuck that. He just swam over to a nearby home, hotwired a speedboat, and spent 12 hours ferrying every single person in the apartment complex to a staging area so they could be airlifted to safety. When he ran out of gas, he siphoned it out of cars and other boats. When he got tired, he fought through it. When he had a dude from the projects shove an AK-47 in his face and try to hijack the boat out from under him, Lance Corporal John Fucking Keller (who had stared down the barrel of quite a few AKs in Desert Storm) pulled his .45-caliber pistol, aimed it at the would-be pirate, and said, "I've been battle-tested and I don't miss. Don't try me."
Thanks to his fearless efforts and unlimited resourcefulness, John Keller saved 244 people – half of whom were elderly and/or disabled – from what would probably have amounted to certain death. He did it not because he had to, or because it was his job, but because he felt an obligation to help those in need – and nothing was going to stop him from keeping his people safe.
He still lives in the building today.
"It sure wasn't for money. It wasn't for recognition.
It wasn't to be no damn hero. What made me stay was the old people.
I just realized that nobody else in here could have gotten those people out.
They would have sat in here for five more days.
And they didn't have five more days."