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Horrible scenes at New Orleans airport

The New Orleans International Airport has become a make-shift triage center for those injured by Hurricane Katrina and other hospital patients stranded in flooded hospitals by the storm. NBC News Kerry Sanders reports on the gut-wrenching scene there.  
/ Source: NBC News

I cannot believe what I am seeing here in the New Orleans area. I’ve been reporting for 21 years around the world and I've never seen the likes of this.

I landed here at the New Orleans International Airport in a helicopter on Thursday to get fuel in order to continue an aerial tour of the devastated area.

There was a Blackhawk helicopter just beginning to crank up on the tarmac. I ran over and asked if the NBC team could go along, figuring that they were going on a medical run. They said that they had room for one more. So, I jumped on board with a home video camera.

About six minutes later we were circling a parking garage at Tulane Hospital. We finally touched down and picked up the last 19 hospital employees being evacuated. Many of them had their families as they scrambled into the helicopter and we lifted off in the darkness.

There was a sense of excitement among the family members as we were leaving. But, personally, for some strange reason, it reminded me of that picture of the last helicopter fleeing Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

These people were excited to get out, but weren’t even thinking about what they were leaving behind — their jobs, their community and their city. 

Baggage conveyor being put to grim task
The airport, meantime, has been converted into a triage center. There are so many bodies that medical staff are using the baggage conveyor to carry the stretchers.

There are just so many patients and so few people to help. I would estimate that there are at least 1,000 patients who have been brought in here.

The patients range from babies who are 2 months old to a 91-year-old man. There is no discrimination. If you were a patient at a hospital or you were injured by the hurricane in New Orleans, you could be in this crowd.

People are coming in here with all sorts of conditions — from those who were on chemotherapy for cancer to those with heart failure.

Then there are those who were injured by the hurricane and its aftermath. I spoke to a man who was beaten up at the Superdome. His jaw was broken and he had a friend with him who had a concussion and was basically unconscious.

The man with the broken jaw said that he had another friend who was beaten to death at the Superdome. He said that they had no choice but to leave his body there.  

One woman was just put down on the tarmac and left. She was there on the tarmac and clearly had no idea where she was.

I ran over and grabbed her hand and whispered in her ear, “You are OK. You are with people who will help you.” She reached up and kissed me which made me just shudder inside. She was just so frightened, as are so many of these people who are brought in here. They don’t know where they are and are just confused.

Patients are being flown out from here to Houston, Nashville, and Atlanta and then transferred from there to local hospitals. 

But, not all of these patients have been identified. People are coming in and many don’t have hospital tags. Others are arriving with recent injuries dazed, unconscious, and not even knowing their own names, but they are being shipped off on planes to other hospitals. Family members may not know what happened to their loved ones. They are being distributed across the country and people don’t even know who they are.

Rude awakening
Perhaps the most difficult thing for me was when I woke up this morning next to two dead bodies.

I spent Thursday night in the triage center and went to sleep last night on an extra stretcher. When I woke up this morning, there were two body bags beside my stretcher.

The cameraman with me said they actually tried to take my stretcher during the night. They  thought that I was one of the victims, until he told them I was OK and to leave me there.  

The stench of death reeks inside portions of the airport here. Other parts of the airport just smell as any hospital would if there was no way to clean up. It is human misery as people are lying in pain, ailing and wailing.

The pained screams from patients is like fingers on a chalkboard because there is nothing you can do to reach out and help these people. They have limited medical supplies. They do have aircraft coming in. The C-17s, Storm-30s are moving people out of here as fast as they can.

But, as they take them out, there are still more medical choppers arriving with more patients that are coming in from hospitals that are flooded in downtown New Orleans. 

This is, I think, the hardest story I’ve ever covered. Emotionally, I’m just really being tested. I cannot believe what I’m seeing.

A reporter is supposed to remain detached and just report what’s going on. But, when there is a man lying on the ground, and he’s yelling out to anyone walking by, “Help me! I need some water! Help me!” and there is no one to help this man.

There is no one to reach down, give him some water, or hold his head, and tell him to breath slowly.

It is unimaginable. It is absolutely gut-wrenching. It’s horrible.