Saturday, September 4, 2010

Witness to calamity

By Michael Jones
Charleston Daily Mail
Sept. 9, 2005

"I never thought something like this could happen in America," a man told me while standing in the crowded lobby of Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans at 3 a.m. Saturday.

His brand-new white shoes were caked with muck. He had trudged through contaminated water after leaving his original shelter -- an interstate overpass. He removed the laces because they were too waterlogged to be of any use.

He seemed to look through me with his drooping eyes. He was standing next to all his belongings in a couple of suitcases and wondering aloud how he would ever put his life back together.

When would he again see his wife, who had presumably already left the airport on an earlier flight? Would he ever regain his job as a welder? Where would he live until the city could be drained and restored? Would he ever really move back to New Orleans?

"Our world just changed,"

Nothing could have prepared me, or the Air National Guard members I accompanied, for what we saw at that airport. These suffering Americans were too tired and despairing to raise a fuss about the rancid conditions, though.

While the airport was slightly better than the hellish confines of the convention center and Superdome, it was quickly deteriorating. Trash littered the floors throughout the place, and the concourse smelled like urine and worse.

Thousands of people slept on the floor or on baggage conveyor belts while others waited in endless lines for the next flight out of the city. Moans could be heard from some of the sick in a quarantined concourse that housed the most critical patients. Hundreds of these patients, mostly elderly, lay slumped over in their wheelchairs or on green stretchers. Many appeared lifeless.

Those who had been pronounced dead were taken to a temporary morgue set up in the waiting area for a Continental Airlines gate, far from the other survivors and the television cameras.

It's impossible to convey the depths of this tragedy through a newspaper or a television set.

"How do you convey the smell, the sight and the feel of it?" asked Senior Master Sgt. Dennis Heilmann of the 130th Airlift Wing.

I wondered that, too, especially since I had been working for the Charleston Daily Mail for only four weeks before receiving this assignment.

What would be tougher? Seeing the uncensored mess that was New Orleans or trying to put that horrifying picture into words?

---

Never did I think I would be thrust into a major national story so soon.

On Thursday morning, Sept. 1, I was making my daily "cop calls" to various police departments in the state. Before the day was over, I was standing on a tarmac at the New Orleans Naval Air Station.

When I received the assignment from my editor, I didn't have time to really understand what I was about to undertake. The prospect of working with an Air Guard squadron was intimidating. How would they react to having a reporter on their C-130 cargo plane?

More importantly, would I be able to stand up to the horrifying sights and rigorous work ahead?

Those questions and many more went through my mind before I boarded the cargo plane with nine crewmen.

A local news cameraman, Chris Coyner, and I were granted an all-access pass with a C-130 crew commanded by Maj. Kyle Adams. We were able to observe everything and conduct interviews as they carried out their tough assignment.

The first two days of the mission were slow as the crew transported only Army National Guard troops from Ohio to the New Orleans Naval Air Station.

Early Saturday, though, we arrived at the international airport to evacuate the most critical patients from the city. Nothing could have prepared us for what we were to see.

Much of it will stay with me for years. I hope never to forget the evacuees' faces so I can be reminded of how fortunate I am.

We take our many luxuries for granted. I did before Saturday.

Surprisingly, the air guardsmen I accompanied expressed that same sentiment. Men and women who had served in "The Desert" -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- could not put into words what they felt about the devastation they saw on the faces of the survivors.

It seemed that even the displaced New Orleans residents themselves didn't understand the magnitude of their ordeal. Understandably, they appeared to be more focused on surviving the difficult conditions than worrying about everything they had lost.

As relief workers worked to move thousands of survivors through the airport, the media representatives began to pour in. Dozens of satellite trucks lined the parking lot, but many of the tragic stories had already left on flights to their unknown destinations.

---

Throughout the week, I got an inkling of why the Base Realignment and Closure Commission might have spared the 130th Airlift Wing. The guardsmen carried out their mission professionally, even with constant confusion.

The crew waited on the New Orleans tarmac for five hours Saturday while volunteers loaded three other planes around theirs. The C-130, carrying 24 patients, left as dawn crept over the horizon.

After unloading those patients in Houston, the crew members requested a waiver so they could continue flying missions. They needed permission to work long enough to make it back to San Antonio, or they would be in violation of flying procedures.

Military rules require a flight crew to stop flying 16 hours after they are alerted for a mission. Although they were working on little sleep, the crew was granted the two-hour waiver, but each member had to approve.

Huddled in a tight circle, each of the nine immediately made it clear they wanted to fly back to New Orleans for another round.

Rescue workers diligently loaded 24 more patients onto the C-130. One doctor thanked a crew member and told him two patients would have died had they not been airlifted immediately.

Another airlift the following evening meant more problems. As the C-130 approached Chennault Airport, a small airstrip in western Louisiana, one patient's pulse rate dropped to 30 beats per minute.

Adams and the rest of the flight crew did everything in their power to get the plane on the ground as quickly and safely as possible. A waiting ambulance crew stabilized the woman, but some of the crew members took the experience very hard.

It was clear to me that their work, and the work of the other crews from the 130th, resulted in many lives being saved.

---

Despite my experiences, I saw glimmers of hope in the fact that people suffering through unspeakable anguish still could smile or speak a greeting to me.

While returning to Charleston Tuesday night, the crew played "Country Roads" over the plane's intercom system. As we headed home, I reflected on what I had seen over the past six days.

Covering this tragedy has been the most rewarding and disheartening experience of my life. It was an incredible privilege to tell this story.

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