Wednesday, September 1, 2010

'It's hard to put into words'

By Michael Jones
Charleston Gazette-Mail
Sept. 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - A crew from Charleston's 130th Airlift Wing landed in New Orleans early Saturday morning and evacuated numerous injured and sick patients to Ellington Air Force Base in Houston.

Less than four hours later, they did it again.

The Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing flew into Louis Armstrong International Airport with 10 medical evacuation members and a critical transport team trained to care for patients while in the air. The team was able to extricate 48 people, mostly elderly, who were too sick to leave the flooded city on their own.

As the Hercules touched down to begin its first rescue mission at 12:50 a.m. local time, the only lights glimmering in New Orleans were from rescue boats searching for survivors.

The medical and flight crews were unsure of what they would see upon their arrival at the airport. Maj. Kyle Adams, the flight commander, warned the crew that the "terminal is turning into chaos."

"We don't know what to expect and that's the most frustrating thing," said Capt. Steven Lehr, a member of the critical care team. "We usually get a (casualty) report."

An eerie feeling set over the aircraft as it taxied, most knowing the airport might have little use after the rescue missions are completed. Three C-130s from the 130th sat on the tarmac simultaneously, all shuttling survivors to different cities, including Charleston.

A large red and blue sign reading, "Welcome to New Orleans," hung over the middle concourse, welcoming tourists before the monstrous Hurricane Katrina ripped through the region.

Just below it sat a luggage conveyor belt leading to a large white moving truck. Instead of transporting baggage, though, it was lowering bodies in white bags to the waiting truck. A temporary morgue was set up in a Continental Airlines gate labeled D1.

Medics moved their patients using baggage carts with two or three stretchers in each compartment. Lehr was taken aback after seeing all the people needing immediate medical attention.

"There's a lot of sadness, tiredness and total despair," he said. "It's hard to put into words."

While at least a dozen C-130s from various squadrons around the country carried people from the New Orleans airport, thousands waited for commercial jets to shuttle them to various U.S. cities. The airport has become the third major shelter since last Sunday.
City officials originally opened the Superdome for residents to ride out the storm, but unsanitary conditions and lawlessness forced its closure, leaving thousands without a place to stay.

Almost every person in the airport terminal looked tired and dismayed, with little hope after a week of searching for food and shelter. They sat in metal chairs, waiting.

Others just slept. Either on the floor or on luggage conveyor belts behind check-out counters.

In the morning, one day into the airport's role as a shelter, the terminals were filled with garbage, yet many said it still did not compared to the hell of the Superdome.

One man said he spent four days on an interstate bridge waiting for transport to a shelter. He said he had lost his wife at the airport and believed she had already boarded a plane.

"I didn't know something like this could happen in America," the man said, looking at the thousands of people who surrounded him in one of the airport's concourses. "It's like a nightmare. I don't know how to start all over again. Our world just changed."

A couple looking for a working vending machine said they stayed a the Superdome for four days before conditions became unbearable. They said they saw a man commit suicide by throwing himself from the second tier of the arena.

Some, though, had harsh words for the federal government for not taking care of their needs sooner.

"They've forgot about us," a woman said as her autistic son slept on the tile floor. "It's been like this for a week, and I'm losing my mind."

The lack of communications has made it almost impossible for survivors to gather information about the relief effort. One woman blasted the major and governor while another woman's anger was directed at the U.S. government.

While tensions were hire, all stayed calm, unlike the riotous behavior by looters and vandals in downtown New Orleans.

After the crew members of the C-130 brought their patients to a hanger at Ellington, they prepared for a second trip to New Orleans. But they first had to get approval to extend their shift.

Flight crews are allowed to fly for only 16 hours until they must take a break. If they wished to make another rescue mission, they would need to extend that time by two hours. Within minutes, they received approval, but were still racing against the clock to make the deadline.

"At (11 a.m.) we go, either with air or butts in the seats," Adams said, alluding to the time their C-130 and crew must depart New Orleans.

When they landed, it was a much different scene than five hours earlier. Dozens of helicopters and commercials planes littered the runways and skies, creating a deafening whistle.
Daylight brough more help, and that meant fewer survivors waiting in mile-long lines to leave. The floors were cleaner, spirits were mildly brighter, but the loss from the week still took its toll.

Maj. David Lester, a veteran of the Iraq war, said what he saw there could not compare to the horror he saw at Louis Armstrong International. Just before the final survivors were loaded into the C-130, a doctor came to Lester, thanking him and his crew for returning. The doctor told him two of the patients likely would have died had they not been airlifted to another city.

This afternoon, the 10 men from Charlie West will fly back to New Orleans and continue their mission.

1 comment:

  1. It truly was hard to put into words the scene we found at the airport. I had to compose myself after seeing the endless conveyor belt of bodies being lowered into the refrigerated truck. Even the look on the faces of some of the guardsmen said it all, although some of them declined to go into the airport concourse.

    This was one of the hardest stories I have ever written, because it was so difficult to know where to start. That and the bulk of it was written in the cargo hold of the C-130 and then finished in a small room with Internet access at the Houston base.

    Finding Internet service was a big challenge from the start since New Orleans still didn't have cell phone coverage when we first arrived. Planning when to write and how to file the story was just as difficult as capturing the details of this assignment.