Hurricane's ghost plays a mind game 'I want to know who I am,' says an apparent amnesia victim

September 10, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI -- He's young. He's scared. And he has no idea who he is.

The mystery man with amnesia is the latest twist in Hurricane Andrew's indiscriminate trail of misery.

Nails bitten to the nub, he picks some more. Eyes to the ground, he chain-smokes and says quietly, "I want to know who I am."

The GIs with the 82nd Airborne called him Joe. They've been his buddies since Tuesday, when he showed up in a daze at their encampment on Krome Avenue in Homestead, Fla.

"Strange," he said, still talking to the ground. "When I first came here, I didn't know where I was at. I didn't even know what state I was in. Like a foreign country."

He says he has no recollection of the hurricane or other recent events. He says he awoke in a field, caught a ride to the encampment and hung back for a day, just watching, before asking for help. He had the clothes he was wearing and $5.

"He started crying and saying, 'I don't know who I am or where I am,'" said M.J. Viles, a nurse with the Togus [Maine] VA Hospital who's working in the field hospital here.

"Something very bad happened that he could not deal with. His mind's taken a vacation as a protective device."

The psychotherapists and psychiatric nurses who have interviewed him all believe he has amnesia. They're not positive he was in South Florida when the hurricane hit, but there's no way to really know right now.

The cloud started lifting early yesterday, little bits and pieces as scattered as a jigsaw puzzle thrown to the floor: The name of a church and pastor. A few locations near Chicago. His favorite song -- "Achy, Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus.

Contacted by telephone, the pastor thinks he can identify the young man, who is in his 20s, of medium build, with light brown hair and brown eyes. Later, the pastor says he was mistaken.

Foremost in the mystery man's memory is a vision of a devastating tornado that wreaked havoc similar to Andrew's.

"I remember something like this," he says, sweeping his arm toward toppled trees and tangled power lines. "The Army and a whole lot of destruction, a couple of years ago. I was there. Everything was gone, for miles and miles. A lot of deaths."

Because of his familiarity with the Chicago area, nurses think it's possible he's describing the August 1990 tornadoes that hit the suburban Chicago communities of Joliette and Plainfield, killing 29 and injuring 200.

"He may've gone through a disaster very similar to this," said Tom Norris, a psychotherapist who counseled the man and took him to the Northwest Dade Center for Mental Health.

"I would never consider that the reason for someone to lose their memory, but it may've been the straw that broke the camel's back . . . [The hurricane] may have been the precipitating event."

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