Wall of Water
(From Chapter 7)
It was around 10:30 a.m., Monday, August 29, 2005. Sal Mangano put the rice on and looked out the kitchen window. It was daylight now, but still dark outside because of the storm. He could see downed trees everywhere, but the storm seemed to be weakening. The rain had stopped. There was even a patch or two of blue sky. Sal Jr. and Tanner, Mabel's brother Tony, and some other men ventured outside to do a quick inspection of the roof. The wind was still blowing but at nowhere near gale force. A huge sense of relief came over all of them. They were still here. It was daylight and they were outside walking around. They had dodged the bullet, they thought. Everyone had survived.
As the men made their way around to the side of the building that fronted the highway, Little Sal heard a distant, dull sound. They were all looking up at the building and its damaged roof with their backs to the road. The noise persisted and Sal remembered thinking it sounded like a far-off train. What idiot is running a train in a hurricane, he wondered. He turned around to face the strange sound. Across the road, perhaps two hundred yards away, he saw something he could neither process nor believe. A six-foot wall of water was rushing straight toward the nursing home. Ahead of the advancing water, he observed all manner of four-legged animals fleeing their pursuer. Dogs, horses, wild pigs from the marsh, anything that could run was hauling ass, fleeing for its life. He and the others spun around and sprinted back to St. Rita's main entrance, screaming: "Water is coming! Water is coming! Get everybody up. Put 'em on mattresses. There's water coming!"
There was no panic, just the sober realization that the sense of salvation they had savored minutes before was a snare and delusion. They had not made it; they had not dodged the bullet. They were about to be under withering attack by something far worse than bullets — they were being attacked by a tidal wave. One could get lucky and dodge a bullet. There was no dodging water. It was instantly everywhere. And it was rising.
Within seconds of the men re-entering the building, the wall of water slammed into the structure with the force of a bomb. Mabel was standing by the nurse's station and the rush of water blew out the half-wall she was leaning against, knocking her to the ground and sending her sprawling some thirty to forty feet. It was as if she were at a water park on a waterslide, unable to control where she went or how far. Little Sal ran through the building in the direction of his house, some 150 feet from the back door. As he exited the building, he found himself in two to three feet of water. By the time he reached the five-foot fence around his house, he was swimming over it, that's how fast the water was rising. He ran with his wife and son. Instinctively, they tried to get to their boat, which had been parked on the lawn but was now snagged in a tree. Somehow he managed to locate the boat's ignition key and a box of spark plugs in the house. He swam back out with these items in his mouth, desperate to reach his boat and release it before it became swamped in the furious floodwaters.
Right behind Sal Jr. and family were Tanner and Emmett Unbehagen, the husband of one of the nurses, Angela. Emmett had always come to the home to shelter with his wife and the residents. He had always brought his boat with him on a trailer, because he thought this was the best place to be. Emmett's boat was chained to the trailer to prevent it from blowing away in the storm. By the time he and Tanner got to it, the chain was holding the boat under water and it was threatening to sink it before they could release it. Fumbling for his keys to unlock the chain, Emmett was pre-empted: Tanner pulled out his gun and shot the lock and the chain off, freeing the boat to do what it was supposed to do — float. It wouldn't be the last time Tanner would use his pistol on this day.
Incredibly, both boat engines started on the first attempt and they headed back to the nursing home, less than a hundred yards away. Some residents were already dead, some were dying, and others were being rescued. When the boats rounded the corner and the front entrance came into view, people could be seen hanging from the gutters up under the eaves. Big Sal had gotten onto the roof by swimming out of the building as the rising waters reached a height of ten feet. He was on the roof straining to keep the front doors open against the pressure of the rising tide. Mabel, almost five feet tall and unable to swim, was half hanging from the gutter, half standing on a raised flower box. She was holding onto a woman named Janie, a borderline retarded resident who was Mabel's favorite. Janie had panicked as the water rose and frantically grabbed Mabel, dragging her under. They had managed to get outside and now were literally hanging on for their lives. Inside the nursing home, the scene was dark and eerily quiet. After running all night, the generator had fritzed out when rising water hit the wall outlets, about eighteen inches off the floor. From that point forward, and all at once, everything shorted out and the place became immediately dark. The building was coming apart at the seams, from the inside out. Windows and doors were popping out. Walls and partitions were exploding from the sheer force of the tidal surge. Little Sal re-entered the building in a frantic attempt to get people out. The only safe place was the roof. The men formed a rescue chain, passing residents out on anything that floated, putting them in boats and lifting them up onto the roof. Tony was wading down the hallway, checking rooms, yelling to see if anyone was inside. If he found someone, he'd put them on a mattress and pass them on to Sal or Tanner, who would pass them outside to the boats.
The brief lull in the weather as the eye of the storm passed overhead ended abruptly. The wind was again at hurricane strength but blew now from a different direction. The rising water became a lake replete with whitecaps — Lake St. Rita. The wind-driven rain returned again, stinging those holding on to each other on the roof. As the water rushed into the building, the back entrance became blocked with debris and floating furniture, an impediment to rescuers trying to get through the glass patio doors. Tanner pulled out his gun and blasted the doors to smithereens. By this time, water had risen above the tops of the door frames and Uncle Tony and Tanner had to dive into rooms in their search for survivors, then take them back under water to get them out of their rooms. They swam their way down the hallway until they found no one and heard no one. The nursing home where love and care and affection had been dispensed in large quantities for twenty years to thousands of people had turned into a water-filled tomb in a matter of minutes. Over the course of the next several months, I would debrief numerous witnesses. Everyone had the same recollection. From the time the water first struck the home until it filled to a depth of eight to ten feet was no more than fifteen to twenty minutes — at most. Mabel recalled hoping and praying that the rising water would just stop rising, level off, and give them a chance to save everyone.
There was only one place for the living, and it was on the roof. Some fifty to sixty people clung to life up there, amid pelting rain and winds that threatened to turn them into sodden tumbleweeds. That two dozen of the people on the roof were elderly residents of the home bespoke a rescue effort that was no less than heroic, I thought. But I said nothing, as the Manganos' stories spilled forth. Instead I scribbled furiously, uncertain what small details in the welter of information might prove crucial or even relevant.
Stuck on the roof, the men quickly came to the conclusion that no one would survive riding out the hurricane up there. God only knew how much longer this weather would last. So Little Sal and his son, Tanner, and others began loading the residents into the two boats and taking them away. They went first to Tammy's house, a couple of hundred yards away. Tammy's house had something the nursing home didn't — a second floor — and that ultimately became the difference between life and death. They unloaded the residents in the violent, choppy waters that now formed Lake St. Rita, carried them up to the second floor, laid them down as carefully as possible, and then returned to the nursing home to pick up another load of passengers. They repeated this process over and over and over until all were removed from the roof. The men were physically, completely exhausted.
The water, still rising, was lapping at the second story in Tammy's house. Without much discussion, it was decided to move the residents again to the abandoned Beauregard Middle School, about a half-mile away. It was an old courthouse and it had something Tammy's house didn't have — a third story. It was also closer to the Mississippi River and on slightly higher ground. Because of uncertainty as to how high the water would rise, "slightly higher ground" meant a lot. Little Sal and Tanner carried residents upstairs again, until the father and son were utterly drained of strength. They constructed makeshift beds out of desks and filing cabinets and placed the residents on top of these crude structures to keep them out of the water. Sal Sr. and Emmett grabbed a fireplace poker and some metal pipe and returned to the nursing home by boat. They tore a hole in the metal roof with their bare hands and an improvised tool kit. They yelled into the opening, and, amazingly, heard a response. Several people were clinging to a floating ice machine and had been for five or six hours, defying death. Five of them — three staffers and two residents — were pulled through the hole in the roof, the last people rescued from the building on that terrible Monday.
WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO TELL THE A.G.?
(From Chapter 28)
The pre-trial skirmishes invariably turned into bloodlettings, but there were victories on both sides. Sleepless night followed sleepless night as the clock ran down. Three days before the opening gavel, I received a phone call from the lead prosecutor. We were barely speaking outside the courtroom. We did all our talking at each other, on the record, in open court. His tone was different this time, less combative.
"Jim, I've just spoken with [Attorney General Charles] Foti, and I am specifically authorized to have this conversation with you." That's good, I thought, what bomb are they going to throw at me this time? Much to my shock and surprise, it wasn't a bomb; it was an olive branch.
He started with a rhetorical question: "You know there are 118 counts pending against the Manganos, 59 counts against each one of them individually?"
"That's correct," I answered.
"The A.G. is prepared to offer your clients the following," he continued. "If they will plead guilty to only one count of negligent homicide and one count of cruelty to the infirm, we are prepared to recommend to the court that any sentence be suspended and that neither Sal nor Mabel will ever spend a day in jail. We have every reason to suspect that the judge will follow our recommendation on no jail time."
You could have knocked me over with a feather or a small gust of wind. As plea bargain offers go, it was hard to imagine a more generous one. We had fought and fought and fought, and perhaps the A.G. now realized that he could lose the case just as easily as we could. He also had his re-election to consider. If the trial lasted four weeks, the first primary would follow in just a month and a half. A guilty plea would be a notch in his gun belt, virtually assuring his re-election for another four years. But if he lost the case, how would he explain to voters that he had blown the biggest, most publicized case of his entire time in office? I did not want to comment on the offer. "Of course, I'll need to talk to my co-counsel," I said, "and ultimately it's Sal and Mabel's decision. So let me get back to you." It was Friday morning. The trial was set to begin Monday.
I immediately got Bob (Habans) and John (Reed) on a conference call and told them about the offer. "That's about as good as it gets," Bob said. "Eliminating any possibility of jail time is always attractive," chimed in John. As veteran criminal defense lawyers, anytime Bob or John could resolve a case with no jail time through a plea, when the possible incarceration time exceeded four hundred years, such a deal had to be considered a major victory. Our objective, after all, was keeping this elderly couple out of jail. The case could break either way, and the certainty that neither Sal nor Mabel would spend the rest of their lives in jail was enormously attractive. This was not a decision the lawyers could make. It was up to Sal and Mabel. They would be the ones pleading guilty and accepting responsibility before the whole world.
"What do you think they'll do?" Bob asked.
"I have no earthly idea," I replied, "but I'll call them and find out."
I called Sal on his cell phone and he answered almost immediately. I relayed the attorney general's offer to him: a one-count guilty plea and no jail time.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"Well, Sal," I said, "as plea offers go, they don't get any better. It's only one count, each, and you'll never spend a night in jail. That takes all the uncertainty out of the case."
"Do you think we can win the case?" he asked.
This was the dreaded moment of truth for me, the one all lawyers who hold other people's lives in their hands fear. I needed to be careful. I did not wish to paint the picture too darkly, nor did I wish to paint a rosy view of how things would turn out.
"Mr. Sal," I said, getting formal with him, "I've won cases I should have lost, and I've lost cases I should have won. I believe we have a compelling story to tell. But make no mistake about it: jury cases are a crapshoot. I can't tell you what to do. I can't even recommend what you should do. The decision is so personal and so important, only you can make it."
There was a long silence as my words sank in. The silence lengthened. To break it, I was about to ask if he had any questions for me. Before I could get the words out, Sal spoke. "Mr. Jim," he said, "I ain't pleading guilty to something I didn't do. I didn't kill those people and I sure wasn't cruel to the people whose lives we saved. What about my name and my family's reputation? I could never look my children or grandchildren in the eye again if I plead guilty to something I didn't do. I trust you to make this come out right."
"What do you want me to tell the A.G.?" I asked quietly.
"Tell him to go f—k himself. We're not pleading guilty to something we didn't do."
Flood of Lies: The St. Rita's Nursing Home Tragedy
James Cobb signs Flood of Lies
6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22
Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St., (504) 899-7323; www.octaviabooks.com
7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3
Jefferson Parish Library, 4747 W. Napoleon Ave., Metairie, (504) 838-1100; www.jefferson.lib.la.us
6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5
Maple Street Books, 7523 Maple St., (504) 899-7323; www.maplestreetbookshop.com