Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Johnson was helping Texans in need of rescue from heavy flooding Sunday when a colleague snapped a photo of him carrying a small child in each of his arms. The image, taken as Tropical Storm Harvey slammed into the Houston area, has since gone viral on social media.
Johnson and his colleagues were going door-to-door in Cypress, Texas, checking to see if anyone in the area needed help, he told TIME. At one of the first homes he checked on, Johnson found a family with two small kids, a baby, and a dog, he said. He told the kids’ parents to take care of the important stuff, like grabbing IDs and money, and that he would help get the two kids to safety.
“I grabbed the kids, and in order to keep the kids focused on happy thoughts given the seriousness of what was going on around us, I told them a couple of light jokes. We joked about swimming, and the water being cold,” Johnson, who colleagues call “Deputy J,” tells TIME.
It was then that he said a “fast acting colleague” snapped the picture, which captures the spirit of those working to help fellow citizens amid the devastation wrought by Harvey.
Johnson got the kids onto a rescue vehicle, which he said was carrying about 15 to 20 people and two dogs by the time it reached a shelter. Then he helped load up their parents and dog as well.
Speaking from a Houston-area firehouse where he and others were taking a break from working long shifts during the storm, Johnson said he didn’t immediately realize the photo had been taken, let alone gone viral. He has since been hailed as one of the many heroes of Harvey by those sharing the image on social media.
Johnson, a veteran who’s been with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office since 2011, said his desire to give back to his community led to a career in law enforcement after serving in Iraq and Kuwait. “I’ve always liked helping people out,” he said.
The father of four added that he was caught off guard by the devastating storm. A planned trip to take his 20-year-old stepdaughter to school in Corpus Christi, Texas had to be cancelled after the storm hit and the city was evacuated.
Johnson said this week’s storm and flooding mark his third time dealing with such an event in the area. While he said what he’s seen so far isn’t the worst he’s seen, with up to 50 inches of rain expected to fall on the area by Friday, he expects that things could get worse.
“The way this is going, if the rain don’t let up, it really could be a historic event,” Johnson said.