Staffers try to defend school against gang

Ordeal: Armed thugs held clerical, cafeteria and custodial workers at a flooded New Orleans elementary for 2 1/2 days.

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - The 14 refugees from the city school system's McDonald School No. 42 loitered in the morning heat on the crescent of an onramp of Interstate 10 here yesterday, gulped military meals ready to eat, sat on the asphalt and counted themselves lucky.

Over the previous week, they had been buffeted by Hurricane Katrina, cut off by 15-foot-deep floodwaters and held hostage, they said, for 2 1/2 days by a loosely affiliated gang of armed looters. After their escape, they sat stranded on an exposed highway overpass for two nights while convoys of relief vehicles roared indifferently past.

Famished and dehydrated, they were finally brought here yesterday by compassionate National Guard drivers, to the graveled shoulder of the intersection of I-10 and Causeway Boulevard. They joined thousands of others displaced by the storm who were waiting for buses to ferry them to shelters, to some place, any place, higher and drier than New Orleans.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions of The Sun misidentified the New Orleans elementary school where the staff was terrorized by a gang. It was McDonogh School No. 42.
The Sun regrets the errors.

They had only a few satchels and plastic bags of their possessions. But they were celebrating. The 14 had their first food and water, they said, for two days.

Many stories of suffering and survival have emerged in the aftermath of Katrina, but few as harrowing, perhaps, as that of the would-be defenders of one neighborhood elementary school.

"I just couldn't fathom how people from the neighborhood would destroy the place where their children would be going to school," said Sandra Handy, 58, who has worked as School No. 42's chief secretary for 16 1/2 years. "It was heartbreaking, just heartbreaking."

Rebecca Doucette, the school's chief custodian, sadly agreed. "They even took my shoes," she said.

On Sunday, clerical, cafeteria and custodial workers at the Orleans Parish school, one of many named for a wealthy philanthropist, had locked themselves into the building - in one of the city's poorest districts - to prevent its being ransacked after the storm.

But within hours of the hurricane's peak Monday, they said, the school was invaded by possibly a dozen armed thugs. They broke through locks, knocked down doors and set up a kind of gang headquarters on the second floor.

The young men pillaged the school looking for cash, food, computers and anything else they might eat, drink or sell. When they tried to smash their way into a classroom where the school's staff huddled, the two young sons of one staff member threatened them with a hammer.

The thugs laughed as they knocked the door down. "They told us they could do what they wanted, because the police weren't going to come anyway," said LeRoy Doucette, 56, husband of the chief custodian.

Some ex-students

Eventually, the gang forced the terrified school staff and their families - including several chronically ill and disabled people - into the school's auditorium. The staff recognized some as former students. "They thought it was a joke," said Evelyn Jenkins, 61, the school's parent-teacher liaison officer.

The water kept rising until it was 2 feet deep on the school's second floor.

The gang slept all day, the staff said, then set off from the school at night in boats to loot local businesses and homes. They broke into the computer room and pried open the locked freezers with hammers and crowbars.

As the floodwaters rose and cut off the school from the rest of the city - and perhaps from civilization - the invaders drank, smoked and partied. Sometimes they fired their weapons, staffers said, and at other times quarreled, with violent threats.

Huddled in the auditorium, the frightened defenders took turns sleeping while others kept watch. One night they heard a man scream that he would kill another looter. Quarrels were sometimes punctuated by gunfire. But the hostages never learned if there was bloodshed.

When friends and volunteers approached in boats to evacuate the staff, the thugs threatened to hijack the boats and drove them away. When relatives of the staff brought food and water to the school, the thugs seized almost everything - giving the school's defenders only a few jugs of water. LeRoy Doucette said he saw the looters taking random potshots at passers-by.

During a journey to fetch food and water, one of the young men went to the only place open, a looted store. "A policeman put a shotgun to his face and cursed him," Evelyn Jenkins said.

Finally, the staff put signs on the roof of the building begging for help. As helicopters hovered overhead, boats with armed men approached. The thugs were kept at bay, and the hostages were freed.

But the boats took the school's defenders only as far as a dry, deserted section of town. The increasingly weary, ragtag band wandered, together, down a highway for many blocks, from Elysian Fields to Orleans. The section of freeway, like the city itself, became a refuge for the newly homeless in the aftermath of the storm.

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