NEW ORLEANS — The husband-and-wife owners of a nursing home where 34 elderly patients are believed to have drowned were out on bond Wednesday, after being charged with homicide in the first major criminal case related to Hurricane Katrina’s still rising death toll.
Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti told NBC’s “Today” show that other investigations are likely. “We're going to investigate every death” at nursing homes and hospitals that were not from natural causes, he vowed on Wednesday.
Among those cases is the discovery of more than 40 corpses at flooded-out Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. A hospital official said the 106-degree heat inside the hospital as the patients waited for days to be evacuated likely contributed to their deaths.
Tenet Healthcare Corp., which owns Memorial Medical Center, said no one still alive was left behind when help finally came.
“During more than four days with poor sanitation, without power, air-conditioning and running water, and with temperatures in the building approaching 110 degrees, some patients simply did not survive despite the heroic efforts of our physicians and nurses. We believe that most were very sick adult patients,” the company said in a statement.
Angry attorney general
Authorities said the death toll would be lower if Salvador and Mable Mangano, owners of the St. Rita’s nursing home in Chalmette, a New Orleans suburb, had heeded warnings to evacuate their patients as Katrina came ashore Aug. 29.
“The pathetic thing in this case was that they were asked if they wanted to move them and they did not,” Foti said Tuesday. “They were warned repeatedly that this storm was coming. In effect, their inaction resulted in the deaths of these people.”
“They had a duty and a standard of care to people who could not care for themselves,” Foti said of the owners. “If you or I decided we are going to stay, we do it of our own free will. ... The people at the nursing home don’t have that choice.”
“Thirty-four people drowned in a nursing home when it should have been evacuated. I cannot say it any plainer than that,” Foti said, his voice rising with anger.
Tom Rodrigue, whose mother died in the home, echoed that. “She deserved the chance, you know, to be rescued instead of having to drown like a rat,” he said.
The nursing home tragedy had been described more than a week ago by Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, who told a national television audience how an emergency official busy fighting the flood had lost his mother.
“She called him and said, ’Are you coming, son, is somebody coming?’ And he said, ’Yeah mama, somebody’s coming to get ya, somebody’s coming to get ya on Tuesday, somebody’s coming to get ya on Wednesday’ ... and she drowned Friday night,” he said, breaking into tears during a Sept. 4 interview on NBC.
Response from owners' lawyer
The Manganos were released on $50,000 bond each; each of the 34 counts against them carries up to five years in prison. Their attorney, Jim Cobb, said his clients were innocent and had waited for a mandatory evacuation order from the officials of St. Bernard Parish that never came.
Cobb said the Manganos were forced to make a difficult decision as Katrina approached: risk the health of the patients — many of them frail and on feeding tubes — in an evacuation, or keep them comfortable at the home through the storm.
“If you pull that trigger too soon those people are going to die,” he said. Three people from another nursing home had died during the evacuation ahead of the hurricane.
“What people have to understand is, you’re presented with a horrible choice,” Cobb said. “You take people who are on feeder tubes, who are on oxygen, who are on medications and you put them on a bus to go 70 miles in 12 hours? People are going to die, people are going to die, we know that.”
Cobb also said he had made arrangements with Foti’s office last week to bring the Manganos in Tuesday for an interview with law enforcement officials, but that Foti backed out of that and arrested the couple instead.
“To me it makes the timing of what he’s done and the manner in which he’s done it highly suspect,” Cobb told reporters.
Some residents escaped
The Manganos had an evacuation plan as required under state law, both their attorney and the attorney general said.
But Foti said the nursing home had a contract with an ambulance service to evacuate the patients, but the owners didn’t call the company. They also turned down an offer from St. Bernard Parish officials who asked if the nursing home wanted help evacuating, he said.
The victims died Aug. 29, the day the hurricane hit, and on Sept. 6, at least 14 unrecognizable bodies were still inside the nursing home, the New York Times reported last week.
St. Bernard Parish Councilman Ricky Melerine said the water rose 3 feet in 15 minutes that morning and then even faster, the Times said.
Several men tried to rescue the nursing home’s residents by floating them out on mattresses, and others were able to walk to a school, the Times said. In all, the home had about 60 residents.
There were apparent efforts to fight the incoming water inside St. Rita’s. A table was nailed against a window and a couch was pushed up against a door, the Times said. There was also evidence that water had reached the roof.
Foti said the bodies have not all been identified and he was not sure how many of the victims were patients or staff.
Foti declined to say if the Manganos remained at the nursing home throughout the storm or if they fled before it struck Aug. 29.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.