TORONTO - Ex-marine John Keller says he wasn't trying to be a hero when he used a kayak, a hotwired boat and an air mattress — along with his smarts and brawn — to fend off thugs and save more than 200 people in his New Orleans apartment building during Hurricane Katrina.
"I really didn't think about what I was doing, I was just doing it," the six-foot-seven, 260-pound New Orleans native said in a recent telephone interview.
"I didn't really think about it until I read the paper and it listed blow by blow what I did. I was like, 'Damn, I didn't really think I was doing all this.'"
Keller's Herculean story is one of two in the first episode of Proper Television's new series "Hardcore Heroes," which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on History.
Sony Pictures Entertainment and Overbrook Entertainment have also obtained the rights to his story for a film that's set to star Will Smith. Producer Adetoro Makinde co-wrote the movie, which is titled "American Can" and is due to start production next year.
"I think the most beautiful thing about it is, if Will Smith plays me in one weekend in front of 19 million people around the world, people will know what happened in New Orleans and it will definitely shine a big, bright light on the Hurricane Katrina event," said Keller.
"It'll reach the masses with Will Smith, that's for sure."
As "Hardcore Heroes" shows, the former Reconnaissance Marine was living in American Can Apartments when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. The 45-year-old had ignored evacuation orders because he'd never fled from a hurricane before and figured the building would be fine.
"Plus I'm a carpenter, so I had my chainsaws and all that stuff," said Keller. "So when the storm hits you go out and you clear off the debris off people's houses and you make some money in the process."
But when the levees broke, about three metres of water surrounded the building and residents couldn't get out.
Keller sprung into action when looters kicked in his door.
After taking down the thugs on his own, he paddled a neighbour's kayak through treacherous waters for several hours to try to find loved ones. He then returned to the building and took down more gun-toting thugs, swam to get food, supplies and medicine for neighbours, and convinced a military evacuation chief to help some residents.
He also put ailing neighbours on an air mattress and swam them to an evacuation zone, carried those in wheelchairs to rescue choppers on the roof, and hotwired a boat to get other residents to a rescue embankment.
"An old man told me, 'Young blood, you could've died doing all that stuff,'" he said. "I said, 'Well I never thought about that.'"
Keller thinks his efforts — which unfolded over several days — pale in comparison to what many members of the military go through in war zones.
"Compared to the Desert Storm/Desert Shield events, that was nothing," he said. "Like, I didn't have 400 people shooting AK-47s at me, I didn't have road-side bombs, I didn't have insurgents."
Still, he concedes he was a natural-born leader.
"Like they say, if you don't bite when you're a puppy, you won't bite when you're a dog," he said. "I went to boarding school because I didn't listen to my mom.
"I always did my own thing, I guess."
Keller still lives in the same building, but Katrina taught him to evacuate any hurricane over a Category 2.
He hasn't seen the episode of "Hardcore Heroes" on him yet, but he figures he'll probably "be crying like a baby" when he does and hears the praise his neighbours have for him.
"It's like they hold John Keller in a higher regard than I hold myself," he said.
As for the upcoming movie on his story, Keller said he's met Smith several times now.
He's hoping the movie will tell a bigger story than just his.
"Adetoro, when she first acquired my life rights, she said, 'When I tell this story, what do you want me to do, what do you want me to say, what do you want this do to?'
"I said, 'I want you to tell the world how America treated its citizens on that day in New Orleans,' and in her script she did that."