St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Rescuers search for life, run into scenes of death

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2005

GULFPORT, Miss. - Men in hard hats climbed a hill of rubble, stepping over debris covered in fatback and lard.

They inched across a long, splintered oak, then disappeared from sight, lost in the tangled mess that once was a house.

"Hoecherl," a voice called out, "we've got a body."

It has been four days since Hurricane Katrina struck and the Gulf Coast is still claiming its dead.

Robert Hoecherl slung an ax over his shoulder and made the same treacherous journey, ending at a house shrouded in trees. He poked his head inside a window. Lying on a bed with no mattress was the body of an elderly man - his waxy legs exposed, dark bruises and a sore on his left arm.

Rescue crews in hard-hit Harrison County continued to comb through ruins Thursday, looking for signs of life but more often finding scenes like the one in the Gulfport neighborhood off U.S. 90, within walking distance of the Gulf of Mexico.

"Right now we're only getting to the people we can find," said Hoecherl, leader of a FEMA search and rescue team from Miami. "We may have crawled over three or four people today. There's just no way to tell."

The team is one of 28 groups the agency has deployed across Mississippi and Louisiana.

Across the southern part of the Magnolia State, the official death toll reached 126 but was expected to rise. Harrison County, home to Gulfport and Biloxi, bore the brunt of that with 56 reported dead, by far the worst-hit county.

Bodies, many still not identified, were being placed in refrigerated trucks serving as portable morgues.

In Gulfport, the Miami rescue team used fluorescent green spray paint to draw a circle around the letter V on the side of the elderly victim's white house on Finley Street. They drew a line through the V, meaning dead victim, or in the parlance of emergency workers, "signal 7."

The rescuers used a digital GPS tracker to log the location so another crew could retrieve the body later Thursday.

The day for Florida Task Force II began with what has become an odd routine for rescuers in Gulfport, a once vibrant port.

"Here," medical specialist Joe Hernandez said, holding out a small bottle of Vicks VapoRub, "you'll need this, trust me."

He showed visitors how to rub it under their nose. It's not for dead bodies, or even sewage; it's to mask the overpowering stench of rotting chicken, fatback and pig lard that spilled from shipping containers Katrina tossed ashore.

Bags of chicken swelled in the sun, then burst open like stink bombs.

The smell is problematic to search dogs, too, because it clouds their sense of smell, officials said. Fatback, which seemed to find its way into cracks, on roofs and on the hoods of cars, made slick surfaces even more dangerous.

Other shipping containers held hundreds of pairs of Dickies pants, Fruit of the Loom T-shirts and Croft & Barrow wrinkle-resistant shirts.

The Miami team came upon Mary Naggs, 46, whose home was crushed in the storm.

"I stayed on my neighbor's roof," she told them, bursting into tears.

"It's okay sweetheart, we'll cry with you," Hernandez said, patting her shoulder. She said she had not eaten in two days but, "I'm really not that hungry."

Her thigh was deeply bruised. "I think that happened when I swam to my neighbor's house," she said. She clung to the roof for several hours until the waters receded.

She asked the rescuers to let her know if they found her purse. They said they would. But it was an impossible task, and they soon moved on.

"Fire department, anybody in here?" Hoecherl called out. The team went from house to house, or what remained of them.

In one, a palm tree lay in the living room. Hoecherl used his ax to punch through the attic space, then climbed up, part of the wood breaking off in his hand.

"Fire department, anybody in here?" he called again.

The house was empty.

Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report, which used information from the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.