Monday, September 26, 2005
Rumors of deaths greatly exaggerated
Widely reported attacks false or unsubstantiated
6 bodies found at Dome; 4 at Convention Center
By Brian Thevenot
and Gordon Russell
After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA -- Beron doesn't remember his name -- came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.
"I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. ... Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."
Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body recovery operation, said his teams were inundated with false reports about the Dome and Convention Center.
"We swept both buildings several times, because we kept getting reports of more bodies there," Cataldie said. "But it just wasn't the case."
Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count."
The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."
As the Dome cleared out Sept. 3, Beron, the National Guard commander, fashioned a plan to deal with the dead. He knew of the six bodies in the freezer, but expected far more. He and an Ohio National Guard commander sent 450 Ohio troops to search every nook of the Dome, top to bottom.
"I fully expected to find more bodies, both homicides and natural causes," he said.
They found nothing.