Rumors of rescue copters under fire unfounded

Oct 6, 2005 by

Knight Ridder Newspapers
NEW ORLEANS – Among the rumors that spread as quickly as floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina, reports that gunmen were taking potshots at rescue helicopters stood out for their senselessness.

On Sept. 1, as patients sweltered in hospitals without power and thousands of people remained stranded on rooftops and in attics, crucial rescue efforts were delayed as word of such attacks spread.

But more than a month later, representatives from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security and Louisiana Air National Guard say they have yet to confirm a single incident of gunfire at helicopters.

Likewise, members of several rescue crews who were told to halt operations say there is no evidence they were under fire.

So many rumors were swirling that the facts still haven’t been sorted out. A picture is emerging of heroic but harried rescue workers from dozens of organizations forced to make snap decisions with only slender threads of information and no reliable communications.

The storm created so much confusion that government officials cannot even agree on whether they ever issued an order to halt flights or other rescue efforts.

Sometimes the mere rumor that they had was enough.

On the morning of Sept. 1, Mike Sonnier was directing rescue helicopters at his company, Acadian Ambulance, when one of his pilots called to say the military had suspended flights after gunfire was reported in the air near the Louisiana Superdome.

Sonnier immediately shut down flights. “Until I can confirm that this did happen or didn’t happen, it’s not a chance that I can take,” he said.

Sonnier said that when he checked with the National Guard about two hours later, he was told it was OK to fly. At that point, Acadian resumed operations. Even today, it’s not clear whether a military order to stop flying was ever actually made.

Lt. Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the National Guard, which was handling Superdome evacuations, said it was a civilian who told guardsmen in the area that shots had been fired. Schneider said flights continued despite the danger.

But a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said Superdome flights were temporarily suspended because of gunfire.

In another case of rumor amplified by the media, an Acadian Ambulance medic aboard a helicopter reported Aug. 31 that he had been unable to drop supplies at a hospital in suburban Kenner because of armed crowds on the roof. But the medic never went to the hospital, turning back after hearing a warning over military radio.

Acadian Chief Executive Richard Zuschlag repeated the story to the media, unaware that his crew had been acting on a military radio report. Zuschlag said he learned only in the past week that his crew had not actually seen the crowds.

A spokeswoman for Kenner Regional Medical Center said Sunday that she knew of no such incident.

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