There’s a story Brian Williams likes to tell. He has told it in a TV interview. He has told it to at least two book authors. But even though it had all the makings of a great yarn — danger, guns, resolve — Williams never reported it to his viewers.
Williams is a born showman. With that baritone, that thatch of bronze hair, that gravitas — when the NBC News anchor gets going on a story, little can stop him. But that skill, which carried him to the highest echelons of broadcast journalism, may ultimately prove his undoing. Following his concession that a military helicopter he rode during the Iraq War didn’t take fire as he claimed, Williams is now in hibernation mode. He hasn’t answered repeated interview requests and, following an NBC announcement that his reporting on Iraq and Hurricane Katrina is under review, will now take “several days” off from the network.
The reticence is jarring, for it contrasts with his famed loquaciousness. And for Williams, few stories illustrated that predilection to talk more than his takes on Katrina — the stories with which he made his bones. The stories that are now taking heat.
Among them: The one he told about witnessing a suicide at the Superdome. Or the one he told about watching a body float past the Ritz-Carlton, perched at the edge of an otherwise dry French Quarter. Or the one about the dysentery he said he got. And, finally, the story he told about the Ritz-Carlton gangs. Three separate individuals told reporters no gangs infiltrated the Ritz-Carlton.
The Williams story starts with profound sickness. According to an interview he gave Douglas Brinkley, who wrote “The Great Deluge” (2007), the anchor got sick on a Tuesday. During an appearance on the “Today” show, he was standing next to some floodwater when he looked down at the bottle of distilled water in his hand. He found a “trickle of brown on the plastic bottle,” the book said. “A few drops of the sewage water had accidentally gotten into his mouth.”
The newsman made it back to the Ritz. Sickness was coming on strong. He was “fading in and out,” he said. “Somebody left me on the stairway of the Ritz-Carlton in the dark on a mattress.” Williams said he was delirious with fever and unable to eat.
But dangers beyond dysentery stalked the hotel. That same day, Brinkley wrote, “armed gangs had broken into the 527-room hotel, brandishing guns and terrorizing guests.” Williams said he lay “eight or ten steps from the exit door. They were going to lock in or down the Ritz, shut it to keep the gangs out. Nobody was allowed out. No exceptions.”
Somebody tried to push an IV on him, which Brinkley said Williams was “desperately in need of” but nobly declined. “There were so many ill people in line who needed it more than me,” Williams said. “My conscience wouldn’t have felt right if I had tried to pull rank. But I was in pure hell. I had no medicine, nothing.”
He eventually made a break for it, “wading” out into what is described as “two feet of floodwater, barely able to stand.” In front of the hotel, a violent confrontation loomed. “A gang was waiting on the streetcar tracks in front of the Ritz, ready to ‘smash and grab,’ as Williams put it, to take the vehicle.” Some Louisiana National Guardsmen then materialized to confront the marauders and ensure the “NBC trio didn’t get their escape vehicle hijacked. ‘They aimed weapons at the men on the street,’ Williams recalled. ‘Then we were on our own.'” Somehow, Williams said, he soldiered on, making all of his broadcasts.
The story, however, was slightly different when reported by Judith Sylvester, who interviewed Williams for “The Media and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” In this version, Williams didn’t bed down in a stairwell when he came down with dysentery. He had a battery-powered TV that he watched from his eighth-floor Ritz-Carlton room when the hotel became “uninhabitable,” according to Sylvester.
As Sylvester described Williams’s story, the “Ritz-Carlton soon became a gang target.” She wrote that Williams said he spent one night on his hotel room floor, lying between the window and bed so it would look like the room was unoccupied. “You’d hear young, kind-of-thuggish kids walking about and down the hall all night,” Williams said. “It was terrible. I’m not sure which night I decided to get out of there.”
By the time Williams was interviewed about the experience by Tom Brokaw last year at a Columbia Journalism School event, he claimed “our hotel was overrun with gangs.”
But was it?
In September 2005, the Times-Picayune reported that numerous stories of violence and gunfire had been wildly exaggerated in the days following Katrina. Rumor begat rumor. New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass said he had a perfect anecdote to illustrate that effect.
“He heard ‘some civilians’ talking about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and started raping women — including his 24-year-old daughter, who stayed there through the storm,” the New Orleans paper reported. “He rushed to the scene only to find that although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren’t armed and were easily turned back by police.”
Then another man named Richard Rhodes who stayed at the Ritz as well said he didn’t remember any gangs, telling the New Orleans Advocate that Williams had exaggerated. The hotel had allowed employee families to bunker down. “There was a kind of criminal element that had gotten in, and somebody had worked there and they brought their family,” Rhodes told the paper. “They were leaving the doors open, and other people were trying to come. Two off-duty police officers were running around keeping the peace. There were scary moments, but criminal gangs? That’s crazy.”
A local activist named Leo Watermeier said much the same to the Guardian. He said there weren’t any gangs. “People were afraid that was the case,” he said. “I don’t think that really was the situation. Once darkness came, that was frightening. Just because it was pitch-black. And you felt vulnerable. … But I didn’t see anything.”
It’s difficult to tell what actually happened at the hotel. The Ritz-Carlton hasn’t commented much. It’s possible gangs overtook the hotel, brandished guns and terrorized the people inside. It’s possible Williams confronted a gang bent on stealing his car when he emerged from the hotel. But it’s also possible this was another case of what the American Journalism Review called “myth-making in New Orleans.”
Some of the reports of that time were “so garish, so untraceable and always seemed to stop short of having actual witnesses to the atrocities,” New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer told the magazine. “… Like a galloping mythical nightmare had taken control.”