Stephan Savoia / Ap
Rev. Carl Johnson Sr. reads a prayer over the casket of Ethel Mayo Freeman, 91, as family and friends attend services at Mount Olive Cemetery in New Orleans on Wednesday. Freeman became an anonymous symbol of the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina died at the New Orleans Convention Center in the aftermath of the hurricane.
updated 11/16/2005 7:29:06 PM ET 2005-11-17T00:29:06

In death, Ethel Freeman became an anonymous symbol of the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina: The 91-year-old woman’s body, covered by a poncho and slumped in a wheelchair, lay outside the convention center for days.

More than two months after her death, Freeman’s relatives and friends gathered at a funeral home Wednesday to celebrate her life.

Her son, Herbert Freeman Jr., who watched over his mother’s body for nearly four days before he was ordered onto a bus, returned from his new home in Birmingham, Ala., for the funeral.

Freeman recalled praying at his mother’s side before she died on Sept. 1. About 30 hours earlier, they escaped rising floodwaters in a neighbor’s boat and arrived at the Convention Center, where thousands had no food, water or medical care.

“She was calling out for a doctor or a nurse, but there was nothing there,” he said.

Freeman, 58, said he was stunned the first time he saw a photograph of his mother’s body — one of the most indelible images of the hurricane’s aftermath.

“It made me angry,” he said.

Freeman is suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the death of his mother, who had a pacemaker for a heart ailment and a feeding tube in her stomach.

“He would not have taken his mother there if he thought there would be nobody to care for her,” said John Paul Massicot, one of Freeman’s attorneys.

Massicot, who represented Ethel Freeman in a medical malpractice case before the hurricane, called her “an incredible symbol of neglect.”

“They should have airlifted her immediately,” he said. “There were helicopters buzzing all around.”

‘Nobody could find her’
Before he was evacuated, Herbert Freeman left a note with his name and telephone number in one of his mother’s pockets. Still, it took him seven weeks to track down his mother’s body, which was taken to a morgue in St. Gabriel, La.

Freeman's body
Eric Gay / Ap File
The body of Ethel Freeman, in wheelchair, and another body lie covered outside an entrance to the Convention Center where thousands waited to be evacuated from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans on Sept. 2.
“I talked to different organizations, and nobody could find her,” he said.

Ethel Freeman’s husband died in 1976. She worked at Tulane Medical School for 10 years and was active in her church before she broke her hip in 2000.

“That’s when everything went downhill,” her son said.

Robin Knox, her neighbor of 49 years, said Freeman was a humble, devoted mother and wife who shied away from neighborhood gossip. “Junior took very good care of his mother,” she said. “He never left his mother in the hand of no one.”

Herbert Freeman’s pastor, the Rev. Carl Johnson, drove here from Alabama to perform the funeral service, a modest gathering of about a dozen people. Freeman also was accompanied by his fiancée, Veronica White, whom he met in Alabama after the hurricane.

“Herbert has been an inspiration to us,” Johnson told mourners. “It took courage for Herbert to do what he has done and to experience what Herbert has experienced.”

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