By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 15, 2005
ST. GABRIEL, La., Oct. 14 -- Louisiana's attorney general is investigating allegations that medical staff at one New Orleans hospital euthanized some seriously ill elderly patients in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, his spokeswoman confirmed Friday.
Attorney General Charles Foti has requested autopsies, including sophisticated toxicology tests, on 45 patients who died at Memorial Medical Center in the days surrounding the storm and its aftermath.
Hospital officials have described nightmarish conditions as floodwater rose, generators failed and gunshots were heard outside the medical center in the city's Uptown neighborhood. But they disputed charges they neglected patients and said at least 10 died before the storm.
Nearly seven weeks after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the Louisiana death toll Friday was 1,035 -- and rising, state coroner Louis Cataldie said in an emotional briefing. The tally does not include the remains of more than 1,000 caskets that were uprooted and emptied in the storms.
Every day, more bodies are delivered to the warehouse here that has been converted into a vast morgue. On Thursday, four people arrived from New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, a historic, predominantly black neighborhood that flooded twice.
"I wouldn't be surprised if I'm here six months from now," Cataldie said, reflecting on the arduous task of identifying bodies that in many cases were exposed to extreme heat or submerged in contaminated floodwater for weeks.
More than 200 bodies await autopsies, including the 45 from the hospital. It appears many people died from drowning, coroners said. At least eight were gunshot victims, though it was not clear how many were self-inflicted.
Beyond those broad outlines, little is known about the vast majority of Katrina's dead.
Just 132 of the deceased have been positively identified and their remains released to relatives. Of those 132, 42 percent were black; 43 percent, white; 3 percent, Hispanic; and 12 percent of unknown race. More than two-thirds lived in Orleans parish and one lived out of state.
Many of the earliest victims identified were elderly who died in a nursing home or hospital and most likely wore a medical bracelet. The list includes one child, 3-year-old Roy Williams, a black boy who lived in Orleans Parish, and several people with the same last name.
Another 120 have been identified, but officials are struggling to locate next of kin, many of whom dispersed to shelters, hotels, churches and apartments in other states, said Bob Johannessen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
In recent weeks, the coroners here, often in comparisons to the progress in Mississippi, have been criticized for the slow pace.
On Friday, alternately angry and tearful, they defended their work, describing the frustrations and challenges of their grim task.
"It seems like you can't do anything quick enough," state health officer Jimmy Guidry said. "When people say we're not moving fast enough, people must not understand the complexities of this issue."
Many bodies were so severely decomposed, it was impossible to determine a person's sex or race by visual examination, he said. Some have no skin. Morticians are working in tents filled with an overwhelming putrid smell.
While other states, including Mississippi, frequently rely on a tattoo or distinguishing physical characteristic to identify a body, Cataldie has insisted on fingerprints, DNA or dental records for a definitive match.
"I'm glad Mississippi identified their bodies," said Brian Bertucci, coroner of St. Bernard Parish. "I was upset that that implied we were inadequate or inept."
At the same time, several criminal investigations are underway. Foti, the attorney general, last month charged the operators of St. Rita's nursing home with 34 counts of negligent homicide after they abandoned patients there. More recently, he initiated the investigation of the deaths at Memorial after a physician there told news outlets he had heard discussions of euthanizing the most frail patients.
That investigation is "pretty serious" and could last two weeks, Foti's spokeswoman, Kris Wartelle, said Friday evening.
Memorial's parent company, Tenet Healthcare Corp., released a brief statement commending the "heroic" work of the hospital staff and indicating it is cooperating with the investigation.
Glenn Casey, chairman of the anesthesiology department at Memorial, said that even as the temperature inside rose to 105 degrees, staff continued to care for every patient with dignity. Even a hint of euthanasia "never would have been sanctioned by the medical staff," he said in an interview.
Outside the morgue, two sisters held signs and complained that they have tried for weeks to collect the body of their mother, who they said died at the New Orleans convention center.
"If you have only four people you took out of the convention center, you should know where you put them," Earline Coleman said. "The process is not working."
On Sept. 5, federal officials converted a warehouse in this small community south of Baton Rouge into a morgue capable of processing more than 5,000 bodies. The building and adjacent red-brick school have served as the makeshift offices, laboratories, homes and cafeterias for more than 130 mortuary workers. In an attempt to create some semblance of normalcy, the workers hung pink lace curtains over some of the windows.
Asked what has been the most difficult case so far, Cataldie described examining a woman who had obviously floated for miles, parts of her body gnawed on by animals.
"That individual may never, ever be identified," he said.