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'It Was as if All of Us Were Already Pronounced Dead'
Convention Center Left a Five-Day Legacy of Chaos and Violence

By Wil Haygood and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 15, 2005

NEW ORLEANS For five eternal-seeming days, as many as 20,000 people, most of them black, waited to be rescued, not just from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina but from the nightmarish place where they had sought refuge.

During that time, the moon that hovered over the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center seemed closer than anyone who could provide those inside the center with any help.

On the fourth day, after TV had been filled with live reports from the center describing sexual assaults, robberies and gunfire, single mothers desperately seeking help for their children and fathers doing their best to protect them, the federal official charged with leading the hurricane response, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, responded to an interviewer's question by saying it was the first he had heard that people "don't have food and water in there."

"It was as if all of us were already pronounced dead," said Tony Cash, 25, who endured three nights of hunger, violence and darkness at the convention center. "As if somebody already had the body bags. Wasn't nobody coming to get us."

No one has been able to say how many people died inside the convention center; police, military and center officials estimate the number is about 10. Nor has there been any attempt to document the number of assaults, robberies and rapes that eyewitnesses said occurred from the time the first people broke into the convention center seeking shelter on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 29, and when units of the Arkansas National Guard moved into the center on Friday, Sept. 2.

But even without those numbers, what happened in the convention center stands as a harsh indictment of government's failure to help its citizens when they needed it most. That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in.

The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center's management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units' mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. "We didn't want another Kent State," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. "They weren't trained for crowd control."

In more than 70 interviews, with both military and law enforcement officials -- who were themselves sometimes inside the center -- and with many of the survivors who suffered over the course of several nights, a chilling portrait emerges of anarchy and violence, exacerbated by young men from rival housing projects -- Magnolia, St. Bernard, Iberville, Calliope.

"Everywhere I went, I saw people with guns in their hands," said Troy Harris, 18. "They were putting guns to people's heads."

Recounting their pleas for milk for their babies, for food, for protection, many survivors described the same sense of bewilderment and anger -- broadcast, surreally, on live television. "This is America," one woman shouted into the TV cameras. What she meant was, this is not supposed to happen here.

Too Late to Leave

It was Saturday, Aug. 27, when New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin pleaded with city residents to leave. Katrina would be on land in less than two days. A day earlier, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had declared a state of emergency, prompting heightened preparation by the Louisiana National Guard.

But by this point, the appeals from Blanco and Nagin were aimed at one group in particular -- the poor. Those with resources had already bolted.

Many simply had no way of leaving on their own. Many who had survived hurricanes figured this wouldn't get them, either. "They tend to look at evacuation orders as scare tactics," said Troy Jarreau, a New Orleans schoolteacher who has taught many children from impoverished households.

But by Monday, after Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees had broken, a different reality was clear. "Get out! Get out now!" was the message on WYLD ("Wild for Jesus"), a popular black radio station. It was repeated on Q93-FM, heavy with rhythm and blues and rap music.

This time, those who stayed behind found themselves wading, or swimming, using every ounce of energy to get themselves to the Louisiana Superdome, which had served as a refuge in previous hurricanes. But the indoor stadium had begun filling as early as Sunday, and by the next day, officials had started turning people away. It was becoming overcrowded, and the floodwaters had begun to encircle it.

The convention center, a sprawling complex of meeting halls nearly a mile long near the Mississippi River, was never intended as a shelter, said Capt. M.A. Pfeiffer, an operations officer with the New Orleans Police Department. "It was supposed to be a bus stop where they dropped people off for transportation. The problem was, the transportation never came."

As rising water engulfed the Superdome on Monday, trucks and vans that were rescuing people from the I-10 overpass and other locations began dropping them off on the dry road in front of the center. It was the only option, police said. Quickly, the crowd grew to 1,000 people.

Katrina had ripped a hole in the center's roof, dumping pools of rainwater into Hall C in the middle of the huge complex. The center lost electricity and water pressure, but otherwise damage was not severe.

Monitoring the damage were about 40 essential convention workers -- carpenters, electricians and unarmed security guards -- supervised by the center's president, Jimmie Fore, who had arrived there Sunday determined to ride out the storm. Joining them were about 300 other employees and their families seeking shelter.

As a crowd gathered outside and it became dark, Fore said he sensed trouble, so he went down to the sidewalk and made an appeal. He warned those arriving that the center had no food, water, electricity, medical care or other provisions to serve as a shelter. They ignored him. "They just kept coming," he said.

Security guards had locked the building, but later that night, people began yanking on the doors and eventually opened one. "Once one got in, they let all the others in," said Fore, explaining that the doors had "panic hardware" and could not be locked on the inside.

At the Superdome, officials had devised a security plan to check for weapons. No such plan was put into place for the convention center, even as the numbers of people seeking shelter swelled and swelled.

Descent Into Danger

Leon Doby, 26, had gotten daughters Leah, 1, and Khaylin, 3, out of their home, put them in a crate, tied the crate with rope to his waist, then began swimming. He hustled his way, finally, onto a motorboat. It sped off to the Superdome, all aboard exhausted.

At the Superdome, they were rebuffed, and pointed in the direction of the convention center, 10 blocks away.

By the time Doby -- with the crate and the two daughters -- arrived Tuesday, he found himself gazing into thousands of bewildered faces. Gripping his daughters, he walked fast -- exactly where he was going, he did not know -- but he passed an elderly lady who seemed to be listing in a wheelchair.

"I went down the hall," he said. "By the time I was back, she was already gone."

Doby would spend four days at the center. All he had for himself and two girls during that time was a sandwich and two bottles of water that a stranger had given him.

Linda Cash, 26, arrived with her two children, Clarence, 6, and Cyrin, 2. "Soon as I got there," Cash recalled, "I saw fighting. I saw people throwing chairs. People pulling guns out, right in front of little children."

Near where Cash had hunkered down Monday night, she noticed a little boy having difficulty breathing. She figured he was having an asthma attack or an anxiety attack. She and others nearby spotted a too-seldom-seen police officer. The officer came over, his gun drawn. Cash said she pointed to the young boy. "The officer checked the boy," Cash remembered, "then turned to us and said there was nothing he could do."

The officer vanished. The boy was dead -- a death confirmed by three others interviewed for this article.

Another officer soon appeared, and Cash and the others figured he would remove the dead child. "But that officer told us he had come over to our area to check on some gunshots he heard near us," she said. The body stayed there.

By Tuesday, the center's population had exploded to nearly 20,000. "The lights never came on, for some reason, all the way," Cash said.

And among those thousands were gangsters, though maybe not members of gangs. Community activists for years had been warning the city's leadership about the folly of mixing youths from one housing project with youths from another.

"You declare martial law," said Jazz Washington, a community activist, "and to these gangsters that just means, 'We can kill you and keep on moving.' "

A gang broke into the locked alcohol storage areas and suddenly had 50 cases of hard liquor and 200 cases of beer. And before long, there were scenes of gangsters, drunk, groping after young girls -- and those scenes not far from the ones of women in corners, balled up, praying all frozen with a Hobson's choice: the gangsters, or the floodwaters.

"They took so much, they couldn't drink it all," said George Lancie, manager of the center's food-service company, who had been at Fore's side.

In the chaos, the youths hotwired anything that would move, including electric utility carts and forklifts. Tony Cash saw the forklifts being driven about in zigzags. "They were nearly running over people," he said. "I'm telling you, it was crazy."

Fore was at a loss as to how to quell the danger. He said he tried desperately to call local and state emergency authorities. But he never got through. And he looked and looked for the arrival of local police.

"You might see them drive by," he said. "Is that providing security?"

New Orleans police officials said they could not safeguard the center after Katrina left them short of officers, vehicles and a dependable communication system. And when their armory flooded, they were short of ammunition. Dozens of officers tried patrolling outside around the convention center, but, according to Lt. Melvin Howard, the crowds and darkness made it difficult and dangerous to work inside.

Police could not use flashlights without giving away their position and becoming possible targets, Howard said. Nor could they open fire, if confronted, without the risk of killing innocent people.

Troy Harris, 18, who had survived a gunshot to the stomach on the hard streets of New Orleans, thought he could handle himself anywhere in the city. The darkened convention center gravely tested his moxie. "They were robbing people in there. At gunpoint," he said. "Somebody robbed me of a hundred dollars."

Even police officers were afraid, Harris said. "I saw police officers in the bathroom taking off their uniforms!" he said. "I'm telling you, they were taking off their uniforms and throwing their badges down!"

Doby saw prostrate bodies near the bathroom -- dead or unconscious, he didn't know. He told his little girls it was okay to soil themselves. His hungry girls in his arms, Doby was furious.

At daybreak, many would flee outside, where TV cameras gave them desperate moments to make appeals. But for the most part they had nowhere else to go. It was as if they were marooned in some faraway locale, on some faraway island -- instead of New Orleans.

Rumors were treated as fact -- both inside the convention center and out. A later report that there were 200 bodies in the convention center and the Superdome brought a coroner's unit rushing from St. Gabriel and Baton Rouge, La.

One night, said Steve Rochon, a deranged man started yelling, "Here comes the water!" -- intimating the Mississippi was about to flood the center. A panic ensued, and mothers grabbed children.

The deaf didn't know what was happening. The old in the wheelchairs couldn't move. But the stampede was on anyway. A mother screamed that someone was stepping on her baby.

"People just started panicking," recalled Rochon, himself forced to move animatedly on a prosthetic leg. "People were getting run over each other."

At one point, a police car drove up. Perhaps good news. Perhaps ships were steaming up the Mississippi over there right now.

A police officer tossed out a few bottles and drove off. It ignited a free for all. Doby himself looked on in horror as a man -- arguing over the water -- struck another man with a two-by-four. "That man, he was split" in the head, said Doby. "He was leaking. He just dropped, face first."

Back inside, Doby was stilled by yet another confrontation. Three women were arguing, over what everyone seemed to be arguing about: lack of food, water, space. One of the women -- a snap-of-the-finger quick -- plunged a pair of scissors into the shoulder of the woman she had been arguing with.

Everywhere, a new woe. A group of people desperate for food broke into the kitchen. When they tried to cook something, a fire erupted.

Desperate to Flee

By Wednesday night, Fore and eight colleagues had locked themselves in an office. A gang had threatened to break through, rattling the door. A security guard informed Fore the situation appeared to be getting worse in the center.

Fore and his aides had parked their cars over in Hall J, and Fore decided they had to make a break. Thursday afternoon, they moved stealthily to their cars. When they reached them, they slipped inside and fled.

Wednesday, some buses arrived, but of the thousands in the convention center only a tiny number could board. They had been standing outside, where the buses rolled to a stop.

Then there was a miracle: Seven more buses rolled up. The race was on to get to them. Linda Cash, slow off the draw, grabbed her children anyway. And started racing. "Then the buses pulled off," she said. "And no one was on them. That's when I knew I really had to find a way out of there."

On Thursday, Cash left, taking her children and stealing a car that eventually got her to Baton Rouge. That same day, the New Orleans police made a dramatic entrance. Sgt. Hans Ganthier and 12 other New Orleans SWAT team members entered the center, M-4 commando rifles at the ready. Prayers had been answered -- only it was a rescue mission of a different purpose.

A Jefferson Parish police deputy had appealed to SWAT team Capt. Jeff Winn for help in bringing out his wife and a female relative from the center. "He knew they were there and was hearing nightmarish stories," said Ganthier, who declined to identify the officer for security reasons.

Winn approved the mission.

When the SWAT team entered at 11 a.m., the Jefferson Parish officer called out his wife's name. She heard him, and along with the relative rushed to his side. The SWAT team put the women in the middle of the team, then backed out the door.

Once it became clear that the SWAT team had come with the single goal of rescuing two white women, anger exploded.

"Racists!" one man cried out.

"Some people were upset we weren't rescuing them," said Ganthier. "It's hard to leave people behind like that, but we were aiding an officer."

'A Mob, Crazy Mentality'

By Tuesday night, a contingent of at least 250 Louisiana National Guard troops was hunkered down in Hall A, off Julia Street at the northern end of the building.

The armed troops, from at least two engineering battalions -- the 769th and 527th -- had been assigned to set up a base at the center to prepare for debris removal and road clearing, as well as rescue and security. But they had enough food and water only for themselves and had no immediate orders to provide assistance or security for the thousands of evacuees in their midst, according to interviews with a dozen enlisted soldiers and officers.

Instead, as the danger level grew, they felt they must first protect themselves.

"There was way too many of them and way too few of us," said Master Sgt. Chad Anderson, 37. "Since we couldn't help them, it was best to avoid them. They had a mob, crazy mentality."

Whenever the soldiers left the center on missions, they drove west on Julia Street and away from the throngs of people begging for food and water along Convention Center Boulevard. "When they saw the soldiers, they'd think, 'That's food,' " said Sgt. Karla Spillers, 26. "We didn't have any for them. We had to feed our own people."

Spillers said she felt pain at the knowledge that teenage girls were wandering around the center, alone, knowing they were possible prey.

"There were prisoners, mobsters, gangs" in there, she said.

Almost as soon as they arrived, Guard commanders became concerned enough about the safety of their troops that they ordered more weapons and ammunition. On Wednesday night, there was kicking and banging on the doors to Hall A, where the guardsmen were. "They were trying to break the doors and get us," said Anderson. "They knew we were there."

"About 9 that night, we started barricading the doors," said Staff Sgt. Bryan Lowery, a supply sergeant with the 527th battalion.

Guardsmen parked at least three dump trucks next to the doors to block them, and Lowery began dispensing weapons and ammunition.

"It scared me," Spillers recalled. "Everyone went to get their weapons from the backs of the trucks."

That night, Guard commanders figured the convention center was untenable as a staging base. And they, too, left the center despite what Fore said were his pleas to stay.

"We were told they couldn't help us unless the order came down from the top, from a lot of people," Fore said. "The only time they partnered with us was when there were gunshots in the area where they were actually staying. They protected themselves."

Maj. Keith Waddell, commander of the 769th Engineer Battalion, said his unit was never asked to quell the violence at the convention center. "The idea of helping with the convention center never came up," he said. "We were just preparing ourselves for the next mission."

Waddell said he believes that, if so ordered, the Louisiana Guard forces present would have been adequate to get the center under control.

"I feel confident we could have controlled it, with the numbers we had," Waddell said.

But senior commanders indicated they had ruled out that possibility. Col. Stephen C. Dabadie, chief of staff of the Louisiana National Guard, said the engineer units were "not designed to secure the convention center."

The Troops Arrive

Early Thursday, the Guard troops packed up and rolled out amid angry calls from the crowd inside. Twenty-four hours elapsed before more troops arrived -- including a contingent of the Arkansas National Guard, imposing enough so that no one tried to bother them.

Many of the guardsmen had recently returned from Iraq, and they arrived wearing helmets and full body armor, and shouldering rifles. To their surprise, they encountered virtually no violence -- only a crowd of hot, frustrated, angry people desperate for food and water. "A lot of them said we should have been there earlier," said Spec. Keithean Heath of the Arkansas Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade.

Military commanders had worried the crowd would rush medevac helicopters. Instead, soldiers faced little interference as they moved to help frail and elderly people in wheelchairs in urgent need of care, women cradling tiny infants and others about to give birth. The soldiers set up food lines to hand out bottled water and packaged military meals, and people lined up to receive them.

On Saturday, soldiers again lined up people and searched them before loading them onto buses. They counted as many as 16,000 people who got on the buses, an eerily quiet process.

Leon Doby, the daddy who swam his two young daughters to safety -- before they all arrived at the convention center -- had already left. He headed out as he had arrived, his two little girls -- his everything -- in the crook of his arms.

A genuine miracle: A man on the road picked them up and drove them all the way to Dallas.

"That was hell," Doby said of the New Orleans convention center. "They sent us to the grave."

Tending to the Dead

Three days after the evacuation, Staff Sgt. Juan Almonte, a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division, slipped past a caution sign and through a ripped metal door, bracing himself for the task ahead -- to "bag" the bodies still inside the convention center.

Inside the food-service area near Hall A, sitting slumped in a black wheelchair, was a woman of about 60 in a hospital gown. A man in a shirt and jogging pants lay curled up on the concrete floor next to her, his hand over his face.

To Almonte's right down a wide hallway, a large man -- the medic guessed he was at least 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds -- lay with his arms over his head and knees bent. Another woman in hospital scrubs lay a few feet from him, next to aluminum cans and trays with stained but elegant white dinner menus.

Around the bodies were pools of dried blood. Looking closer, he noted swelling and abrasions on the corpses. He stared at what he found next. On the gray, soiled floor several feet from the dead lay a pair of shiny brass knuckles.

"My perception was that they were beaten to death," he said last week. "Absolutely, they were killed."

Almonte and his fellow medics had to struggle to straighten the corpses to fit them in double bags -- the large man took up one by himself. The next day, about 20 boxes of body bags appeared in front of Almonte's tent, and he told his men to prepare for more recoveries. But no order ever came. Civilian authorities, he was told, would handle "packaging and retrieval."

Staff writers Lisa Rein in Houston and Sam Coates in New Orleans contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company