Search turns up frustration

Mississippi: Rescue team asks, `Where are all the people?'

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WAVELAND, MISS. -- When the Maryland rescue crew rode into this tiny seaside community before dawn Wednesday, the morning mist parted to reveal hundreds of cars on the side of the highway, all empty, as though the drivers had spontaneously pulled over to stretch their legs.

"Where are all the people?" was all Melissa Hickerson of Frederick could think.

Yesterday morning, they found one of them: the body of an elderly man lying deep in the piney woods here, still strapped into a life vest that didn't help against a 20-foot surge of water. He was the first victim of Hurricane Katrina alive or dead that they have encountered in four full days of searching the collapsed beach houses and thick woods of Hancock County, where the storm's eye wall screeched through.

Still, about 30 firefighters from Montgomery County Fire and Rescue slog along in the drifting sand and Mississippi mud so thick that when it dries it stiffens everything it touches.

"The devastation is total here," said John Tippett of Damascus, who leads the group, whose members are specially trained in search and rescue. Some of them assisted at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and in the aftermath of other hurricanes.

Called by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Maryland Task Force One, as the group is called, drove 20 hours nonstop in hopes of saving someone. They're looking for survivors. But almost a week after the storm hit the Gulf Coast, that prospect looks less likely.

Yesterday, the team, which includes specialists in structural damage and hazardous materials, left its dogs behind. They're trained only to sniff out the living, and they were "worn out," said Tippett.

In the 100-degree heat where much of the shade has been smashed down or washed away, the searchers were trusting their own noses to find bodies.

The trouble is, said a Mississippi police officer who accompanied the Montgomery team, in this weather the mud itself begins to smell like death. And mud is everywhere. It covers the searchers' boots until they feel like bricks, and it fills the grooves of their knuckles.

They look down at the ground constantly, searching for V-shaped alligator tracks and footprints that might belong to the missing.

The Maryland crew, among hundreds of rescue workers laboring here, clambers from house to house, over downed trees and flattened roofs. Looking for victims, they insert thin cameras into holes in the wreckage or probe the darkness with sticks.

They also perform what are called hailing searches when they call out and wait a moment in silence.

No one has answered them.

"It's frustrating to look and look and look and find nothing," Tippett said.

In fact, they find a lot: trombone cases and fiddler crabs and a statue of the Virgin Mary, whole and perfect in a pile of toppled palm trees. In one home, they discovered a firefighter's helmet and axe.

They have unearthed dozens of American flags, which they have hung from trees or pieces of driftwood and on the pole in front of Waveland's vanished firehouse. Yesterday morning, they folded one flag into a neat triangle and gave it to their one victim's family, which had just returned.

The crew members approach every household with hope. They break down locked doors with cinderblocks and smash windows with axes.

"Fire department!" cries Dan Ogren of Frederick, searching a forested neighborhood near the Jordan River yesterday. "Can anyone hear me?"

The woods are silent except for the baying of lost dogs.

And so the team moved on, the mud making their feet heavier with every step. The work is slow and tedious. They search each home, spray-painting an X when they're through. Yesterday, they spent a half-hour dissecting a pine tree to investigate a stench that might have been a dead alligator.

"Never give up hope," said Larry Murray of Columbia. "I believe in miracles."

Because so many search teams are combing the area, there's confusion. Sometimes the Maryland team is assigned to areas that have been searched. Sometimes their areas are too small, and they sit, awaiting orders.

Their job is complicated by maps that don't show all the dirt roads where people live in shacks and trailers.

On Friday evening, there was a glimmer of hope. They received several tips about human voices coming from a blasted ranch house close to the Waveland beach. Neighbors had heard a person cry out. A rescue team from Alabama had reported someone moaning there, and a Mississippi sheriff had also detected sounds.

They set their dogs on the wreckage, pulling back splintered boards and probing dark voids.

"Hello," they yelled. "Is anyone here?"

All was quiet.

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