Orange County Register's Bruce Chambers Photographs Dramatic Rescue Of Katrina Victim 15 Days After Storm

Orange County Register photojournalist Bruce Chambers and reporter Keith Sharon have been traveling, sleeping, eating, and living with the California Task Force 5 Search and Rescue team of Orange County, CA, for the last two weeks as they work in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Chambers tells News Photographer the circumstances that led up to his being in the right place at the right time to make this week’s dramatic image of a New Orleans resident from his home:

By Bruce Chambers

After Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, reporter Keith Sharon worked the phones to catch a ride with our county’s swift water rescue team. That team was dispatched to New Orleans just a few days after the hurricane hit. We were denied access to them because they were flying on military transport. However, the following day we were given two hours notice to join up with Task Force 5 on a bus ride to New Orleans. I had absolutely no idea the assignment was coming and had one hour to pack and say goodbye to my family.

What followed was a 32-hour-bus ride to Dallas, TX, where FEMA directed us to the Hyatt Regency Hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest. What we didn’t know was that the stay would be a four-day delay while FEMA bureaucracy tried to get its act together and find us a slot in the FEMA rescue camp at the NFL’s New Orleans Saints training center in Metairie, LA.

The frustration of the team was thick and unbearable. Trained to rescue people, with veterans from 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, the team was embarrassed to be housed in a four-star hotel while people went unsaved. To make matters worse, they were ordered to keep a low profile in Dallas in order to avoid any impression that they were enjoying themselves while people died. Even more frustrating, 10,000 refugees were pouring into the Reunion Arena next door to the hotel, and the team was told not to go there and help because they had to ready to move at any time. Some ignored their orders and volunteered at the arena, passing out food and spending time with people who were hurting. To make the situation even more bizarre, there was an anime convention being held in the hotel. Conventioneers, dressed as cartoon characters, mingled with the firefighters.

Finally the call came to move, and Wednesday morning the team arrived in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. Immediately, half the team went on assignment to the northern neighborhoods, which were the most flooded in New Orleans, and waited for boats to begin a search. No boats ever came. The only thing they saved was a parakeet left by an evacuee on the raised highway while they waited. The bird became their mascot and was renamed Katrina. Again, bureaucracy slowed them down.

For the following four days the team traveled to St. Bernard Parish, about two hours southeast from central New Orleans, to search house to house, often in waist-deep water, in bayou like conditions. Resources, particularly boats, were scarce commodities. Hundreds of boats littered the streets, but the team was not allowed to confiscate them for use. Team leaders spent hours building connections with other agencies to insure collaboration with their boats and transportation in order to get the job done. In those four days of work the team, delayed and a week too late, did not discover one live victim. They marked dead body locations, entering each home and marking the homes they searched with fluorescent paint. Their final day they met a family that had stayed in place and needed food, water, and other comforts of life. They made a special run the following day with a truckload of clean water, cigarettes, food, and ice. Up to that point, that humanitarian mission was the highlight of a frustrating two weeks.

On Tuesday, September 13, the team was working its second day of searching in the Broadmoor District of New Orleans. Another bureaucratic policy change was eating at them. They had been ordered to stop forced entry into homes. They could only enter if one of their search dogs alerted on a home or if they heard noises. They found several dead bodies in the neighborhood, and a few residents who came out to meet them but remained in their homes after the team’s doctor checked their welfare.

The team completed its work and was cleaning up, decontaminating their boots and gear, when a medical aid call came in from a nearby National Guard unit. I had been documenting the work of the team’s logistics leader that day, as we had switched into the mode of writing and photographing personality profiles. The logistics chief drove a red fire department pickup, and the doctor and a paramedic jumped in the cab. Sharon and I jumped onto the tailgate and rode along for the two-mile stretch. We arrived on scene to see the National Guard treating Edgar Hollingsworth, 74, on the sidewalk outside his home at 1927 Lopez Ave.

At first I followed the doctor to the sidewalk and began photographing the doctor. (That photograph was on The Washington Post's front page the next day.) However, soon the Task Force 5 Leaders arrived and signaled us to back off. Apparently a commander of the National Guard unit was upset and yelling at his own guard unit videographer for shooting the scene and was ordering him away. A CBS News camera crew was at the end of the street arguing for access to the scene. I snuck a few frames from my camera, with a telephoto, while the camera sat on my lap, as I sat on the pickup’s tailgate across the street.

The Task Force leader asked Sharon and I to unload the truck because they weren’t sure if an ambulance was coming. We complied because we were the only ones there able to do the job. So while the Task Force 5 medics attended to Hollingsworth, we stacked logistics supplies on the sidewalk across the street. An ambulance arrived on scene. The CBS crew eventually prevailed and I went back to shooting the scene. Wanting to get the house in the background, I stepped around behind the ambulance gurney. Just as National Guard Specialist Manuel Ramos lifted Hollingsworth off the sidewalk onto the gurney I took the photograph.

After Hollingsworth was transported to the hospital we interviewed the National Guard commander and our own medic team. We returned to base and transmitted the photograph and story by cell card modem.

The guys of Task Force 5 were in a celebratory mood. After nearly two weeks of frustration they had finally been able to participate in a live rescue. Sixteen days after the hurricane hit, Edgar Hollingsworth – who was near death when discovered – was the first live rescue in New Orleans in the past two days. The team’s counterparts, the swift water rescue team, had tales of saving more than 400 people and that stuck in their guts. That day the team ordered pizza from the newly opened Dominos Pizza, smoked cigars, and played stickball in camp.

Most importantly, the team was hopeful that their rules of engagement would be changed with the evidence of this rescue. They wanted their ability to carry out forcible entry to buildings to be restored because they felt they were missing people who could not cry out or respond to their calls.

Earlier in the day another California task force had passed Hollingsworth’s home while he was inside unconscious on a couch; they knocked on the door, marked his home as cleared with fluorescent orange paint, and then moved on. Then a National Guard unit from San Diego, assigned to protect the Task Forces working in the area, passed the house. A few guardsmen peered in the window of Hollingsworth’s home and spied his foot on the couch. They broke the door down, against the rules, and found him barely alive.

After nearly two weeks, 80 members of Task Force 5, with their 11-truck convoy, were able to say they took part in rescuing one person. Their doctor, Peter Czuleger, performed a specialized IV procedure on the man, there on his sidewalk, which kept him from certain death.

Personally, I think these men and women of Task Force 5 were true heroes, in every meaning of the word, whether they saved anyone or not. They stayed disciplined and true to their mission, following orders and doing whatever they could with horrific conditions. They performed the grim task of body location and worked in neighborhoods away from the cameras, offline from the main story. They did it with a smile and were happiest when a day was a full day of backbreaking labor in the heat. I saw men go to their knees from exhaustion while breaking down doors and searching homes. I saw men who were immersed in toxic water, after falling through the floors of floating mobile homes, while desperately seeking to save victims trapped inside.

They never gave up hope and if one man was saved through it all, so be it. Hopefully in days to come they will have more success, but their work was necessary and they should be proud of their efforts. I’m proud of them and look forward to covering them in action when they return to Orange County in their regular jobs as firefighters and paramedics.

Ironically, the decision for us to leave the unit had been made the day before my photograph of Hollingsworth’s rescue was taken – in the last possible hour of our deployment with the team. God works in mysterious ways.

Chambers can be reached at [email protected].