updated 9/22/2005 12:52:37 PM ET 2005-09-22T16:52:37

John and Leola Lyons stayed together, locked in their neat little blue house, riding out the killer storm and the flood that followed.

A pair of agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found the elderly couple inside their house Tuesday, more than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans.

John was keeping watch over his wife’s body.

ATF agents Charles Smith and Sam Cohen, part of the massive hurricane relief effort here, went to a suburban store for supplies earlier in the day and Smith struck up a conversation with an old man named Leo Barrow.

“He said he was worried about his sister,” Smith said. “He hadn’t heard from her since the Sunday before the storm.”

When they got to the house in the Mid-City section, they thought the couple might be safe. The door was marked with the bright orange “X” that indicates a patrol had already been through.

“I saw that ’X’ and thought it would be OK,” Smith said. “It had been checked.”

A closer inspection showed this one was dated Sept. 13, and that the house was not entered because it was locked. It also bore a zero and the letters A and D — no one alive, no one dead. The same day, the SPCA had taken a dog from the other side of the duplex.

“He said he didn’t hear the rescuers,” Smith said. “They had just stayed inside, waiting for help.”

'Pretty bad feeling'
Smith and Cohen knocked on the front door — no response.

They noticed flies in a window. “When we saw those we had a pretty bad feeling,” Smith said.

They went to the back of the house and John Lyons, 72, finally heard them and opened the door. His wife, also 72, lay dead in the bedroom.

“I’m surprised he didn’t make it out of the house earlier, let somebody know he was there,” said Emergency Medical Technician Christopher Keller, who was on the scene. “He was probably in a state of grieving, and maybe confused.”

Keller estimated that Leola Lyons had been dead for five days.

John Lyons was not dehydrated, said Dr. Jeff Kuo. He survived on bottled water and canned food.

“He was able to walk out of the house under his own steam,” Kuo said. “He was in surprisingly good shape.”

Floodwaters had risen about to 5 feet in the neighborhood, and 18 inches inside the one-story house, stranding them for 24 days.

Within an hour, Lyons had been taken away to a hospital.

Half an hour after that, a slow procession of white vans followed by two military Humvees pulled up to the house. Workers emerged and donned white decontamination suits to retrieve the body.

“We have half a happy ending,” Keller said. “That’s pretty good these days.”

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