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Charley spins tall tales

Devastation? Yes. Loss? Certainly. But a conspiracy to cover up news of a startling number of deaths from the hurricane? You be the judge.

ROBERT FARLEY
Published September 5, 2004

An upended semitrailer in the parking lot bears testament to the destructive power packed by Hurricane Charley.

Inside the adjacent warehouse, in addition to a fishing tackle reconditioning shop, lies the secret to what could be one of the biggest conspiracies in Florida history. Or not.

Despite pronouncements from emergency officials that Charley claimed just four lives in Charlotte County, the women who work here know different.

"Four?" Shop manager K. Sanders shakes her head at the absurdity of it.

"There's a lot more deaths than you think," Pat Graham, 39, tells a reporter solemnly as she brushes dirt from a used fishing reel.

A yellow dog sleeps under her work table. Graham found the dog just before the storm and has adopted him. She calls him Hurricane Charley.

Graham hardly looks up from her work as she relates that her ex-husband heard from none other than a fire marshal that there are two refrigerated semitrailers parked in the lots for the Holiday Inn and Best Western hotels in downtown Punta Gorda. "And they are full of dead bodies," she says. More than 230. And counting.

County officials are keeping it on the hush-hush, she said. "I don't think they want to scare us." Plus, there is tourism to think about.

Sanders then dropped this bomb, a story she heard secondhand from someone who talked to a nurse at Bon Secours-St. Joseph Hospital in Port Charlotte.

"She (the nurse) is upset because they've got 400 body bags filled," she said. "Why aren't people acknowledging the other bodies?"

Sanders paused to let the gravity sink in.

"Look," Sanders said, holding up her forearm. "I've got goose bumps!"

A Port Charlotte man waiting in a gas line heard 60 people died when part of the roof was shorn off the Charlotte Regional Medical Center.

Lynette Donner, 26, spent the storm curled in the fetal position and credits a fallen oak tree for preventing her Punta Gorda mobile home from blowing away. She hears there were lots of deaths, "probably in the hundreds," and that emergency workers are uncovering more and more bodies in the rubble every day.

In a neighborhood nearby, Sean Gurney drinks Bud Light out of a tall can, talking with his friends in his sister's driveway while the sun sets. He's staying here because the hotel he lives in has been condemned. They are discussing the 600 people that, they are convinced, are missing from the trailer parks along Kings Highway. In Punta Gorda, they swear, they are throwing bodies into freezer trucks. One of them has called Howard Stern to report the coverup, but he was put on hold.

"We like to put on the news and see what kind of lies they're telling," Gurney said. "They're hiding it all."

Authorities say none of those reports is true, though part of the roof at the hospital was, in fact, damaged. But no one was killed.

"Well," says Sanders, "what do you expect them to say?"

In the chaotic days after Hurricane Charley, good information was hard to come by. Emergency officials initially overstated the death count. The media did, too. And why exactly did the Emergency Operations Center order 60 body bags if there weren't 60 bodies? Rumors start. They grow in the telling. When they persist they become urban legends. Hurricane Frances will likely generate many more.

How many heard about the guy on the top floor of the World Trade Center tower who "rode the rubble" to the ground and lived to tell about it?

Or after Hurricane Andrew, did you hear about the hundreds of bodies being stored by authorities in refrigerated trucks, in secret, to prevent a panic and to protect tourism? Wait. That one sounds awfully familiar.

That's right, nearly identical rumors of hundreds of deaths from Hurricane Andrew made the rounds from neighbor to neighbor, phone to phone, a dozen years ago. Fifteen people in South Florida died during the storm, and 23 after.

Rumors like these often spread after catastrophic events when people are feeling uncertainty, said Connie Lee Chesner, an adjunct instructor of communication at Wake Forest University. It isn't a matter of people maliciously spreading lies or of gullible people passing it along.

"Sometimes, it's just a process of people trying to connect to one another," said Chesner, who has researched urban myth patterns and motivations.

"People love interesting stories," she said. As they get passed from person to person, the stories get embellished. Ten people dead becomes 50, then 100. New details are added. "Might have" qualifiers are dropped.

A Punta Gorda radio station, armed with a generator, stepped into the information vacuum and became a clearinghouse for storm-related information.

The station's general manager, Mike Moody, heard his share of bad rumors in the days following the storm. Like this one: "There are body bags, filled, lining the streets."

"It was more of somebody said something, like telephone, and it got passed on by word-of-mouth," Moody said. "It's just garbage, basically. It's just Elmer-at-the-doughnut-shop kind of thing. I don't understand the motives."

Moody notes that the station early on started getting its information straight from emergency officials, and so none of the more outrageous rumors ever made it on the air.

Not all the media can make the same claim.

In the hectic early morning hours after the storm, the Associated Press ran a story over the news wire with the following lead:

"The death toll from Hurricane Charley rose early Saturday, when a county official said there had a been "a number of fatalities' at a mobile home park and deputies were standing guard over stacks of bodies because the area was inaccessible to ambulances."

Stacks of bodies. And then this from CNN meteorologist Chad Myers on Saturday morning:

"I've been watching some of the local reports here out of Fort Myers and some of the National Guard guys down there. And this is a little ominous to what we're going to see as day breaks here. National Guard guys this morning said there are stacks of bodies in that mobile home park, that mobile home park in Punta Gorda. They're obviously getting to there right now, officially only three fatalities, but I know we will find more. They've already found them in the overnight hours. There are so many buildings down there that are completely collapsed."

Later in the same report, an anchor notes that CNN has not confirmed reports of stacks of bodies.

AP's Miami bureau chief Kevin Walsh said that, by and large, he's extremely proud of his staff's storm coverage, but acknowledges the "stacks of bodies" phrase was a "mischaracterization." There was a miscommunication, he said, between an editor and a reporter who noted there were deputies standing guard over an elderly couple, two people, killed in a mobile home during the hurricane. Earlier that morning, a county official had said in a news conference that there were 10 confirmed dead, including a number at one mobile home park.

Media reports aside, it's hard for anyone who has seen the devastation, or lived through it, to believe that more people didn't die. That's what makes it easier for people like Sanders to believe there are hundreds of bodies at the hospital or in refrigerated trucks at the Holiday Inn.

Just drive around and look at some of the mobile home parks, Sanders implores, searching a reporter's eyes for some spark of common sense.

To be sure, many mobile home parks look like war zones. Missing roofs. Missing walls. Metal, wood and clothing scattered around yards. Some mobile homes were reduced to nothing more than rubble.

"Trash piles, that's all it looks like," said Sanders, who lives next to a trailer park.

When people see the flattened mobile home parks they assume the death count had to be more than reported, said Ignatius Carroll, a spokesman for Miami Fire Rescue, on loan as a public information officer for the Emergency Operations Center in Charlotte County.

But here are the facts, he said. "We have only had four deaths that were storm-related. They are not sitting in refrigerated trucks."

Four dead in all of Charlotte County?

"The numbers don't add up," Sanders said. "It's impossible."

Graham agrees. She and her boyfriend sat under their carport and watched Charley wreak havoc. It was pretty cool, until they started seeing large objects fly by. Pieces of roofs, wood, metal signs. Graham got scared. They first ran into the kitchen, but when flying branches and debris started smashing into the windows, they fled to the bathroom.

"I'd never want to go through that again," Graham said.

And her house fared pretty well, by comparison. A few broken windows. A lawn littered with debris. An outdoor freezer ended up on the front of her 1993 Grand Marquis. Her neighbors on either side lost their roofs.

"Half the town is gone," she said.

Four dead in Charlotte County? Don't believe it, she said. There's got to be a conspiracy of silence.

Why no outcry from relatives?

"We've got a lot of old people here," she explained. "These old people, a lot of them don't have family or they are probably still up North and don't know."

Graham said she even saw one of the refrigerated trucks in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn.

This came as news to David Caudra, manager of the Holiday Inn. It has been a long week and he has heard a lot of strange stories. But refrigerated semis full of dead bodies? In his parking lot?

"I can tell you right now. . . . No way!" he said, chuckling. "I've been here every day since the storm, and there definitely has been no refrigerated truck here."

The 100-unit Holiday Inn was decimated by Charley. It's probably a complete teardown, Caudra said. The hotel was booked solid and 90 percent occupied when a television reporter warned two hours before the storm that Charley had turned toward Punta Gorda and Caudra needed to get everyone out of there. Now. Hotel employees sent everyone to a nearby shelter. But it wasn't easy. Caudra found one elderly woman hiding in a closet with her dog, hoping to ride out the storm because shelters did not accept pets. Another man insisted he wouldn't leave until the cops told him he had to. They did.

"Go take a look at that guy's room now," Caudra said, pointing to a second floor "room" now exposed to the world. The roof is gone. Metal framing is all that remains of the front wall. The inside has caved in on itself. Had they not evacuated, then you might be reading about a lot of dead bodies, Caudra said.

Over at the nearby Best Western, where the other refrigerated truck was alleged to have been parked, a row of cars in the parking lot sit crushed under a fallen carport. But there are no trucks, refrigerated or otherwise.

What about at the hospital, where Sanders said she heard that a nurse reported more than 400 deaths at that hospital alone?

"You won't get a true story from a hospital administrator," Sanders warned. "They have been put under a gag order by somebody. You need to ask a nurse in the parking lot."

Sue Calleja wore a nurselike uniform as she walked to her car in the parking lot at Bon Secours-St. Joseph Hospital. She works in radiology. Not a nurse, but sufficiently far enough down the corporate ladder not to be considered an administrator.

"All the ones who came in here were treated," Calleja swears. "I don't know of any mass casualties that have come here.'

Katrina Klaproth echoes those sentiments. But then, she might be considered an administrator. She is vice president of marketing for the hospital.

Hundreds of people did in fact come through the hospital's emergency room after the storm, she said. Injured. Less than a handful of people died at the hospital in the days after the storm, most of causes completely unrelated to the hurricane. The reports of hundreds of bodies at the hospital are just untrue, she said.

"I don't know why (the rumors) are so rampant," Klaproth said. "It's disturbing. There are still so many people who haven't gotten in touch with their relatives yet. Families worry."

A reporter notes that that's exactly what someone might be expected to say if they were part of a conspiracy.

"I don't think there's any conspiracy occurring here," she said in an assuring tone.

But she, too, has heard the rumors. First she heard 11 deaths in Charlotte County, later reduced to four confirmed.

But then she started hearing drastically different projections.

"Suddenly it was hundreds," she said.

Where did she hear that?

"Reporters, mostly."

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