They wait in the baking sun atop mounds of stinking garbage and walk barefoot through filthy pools of water. And they are smiling.
Finally, the escape from hell has begun.
For tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors trapped for days at the Superdome and other wretched shelters, boarding a rescue bus is the first sign of hope after days of squalid living and bestial violence.
Now, finally, Bus 1025 from New Orleans to Dallas begins to fill. Josephine Bingham, 68, is among the first to take a seat, wearing a warm, broad smile.
“Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord,” she repeats. “I’m here now.”
The commercial coach is cool and the seats recline — unlike the school buses other survivors traveled on. It reaches capacity just before 6 p.m. Friday.
Each of the 47 seats holds a story of survival.
‘It wasn’t fit for a dog’
Some waded through neck-high waters or fought off gangsters or watched people die. All of it makes 25-year-old Reginald Davis angry.
He heard the screams of rapes at the Superdome, where the last people were evacuated Saturday — six days after Katrina struck. He walked through feces. When his leg became infected, he says, no one would help.
“It wasn’t fit for a dog,” he says. “I had the worst experience I’ve had in my life.”
By now, the brilliant orange setting sun is dulled slightly by thin clouds. And the preacher from Missionary Baptist is at work in Row Five.
Louis Cousin, 75, sits with a box of insulin on his lap. He’s mad, too, but trying to make sense of it all.
“I’m being tested through all of this,” he says. “This is not the only storm in our lives.”
The hardship on this bus is palpable. The hurricane itself, plus lost houses, lost jobs, lost lives.
It makes some question returning to a city they loved.
Corey Jones is a 25-year-old truck driver and father of three. He has lived in New Orleans all his life. He loves the Cajun food, the Saints and Mardi Gras. But he believes his home has been destroyed and wonders when he’ll be able to go back to work.
“I don’t know if I want to go back,” he says. “They lied to us. We got played like fools.”
Bus 1025 is charting west in a hurry, but the blacktop unfurls calmly, bordered by little else than signs announcing towns like Jefferson and Marshall and Henderson. The odor on board is slight — just the faintest reminder of foul New Orleans.
Friday becomes Saturday. At the rear of the darkened bus, two construction worker buddies are wondering why they had to endure what they did.
Johnny Jenkins, 37, wonders if the levee was purposely broken to get the city more federal aid. Norris Gullo, 38, asks why they couldn’t use generators to power the shelters.
And why were so very many poor minorities among the stranded? Nearly every face on this bus is a dark one, and the back-seat friends want to know why.
“They wouldn’t have let rich people drown,” Jenkins says.
Sleep ... then freedom
Night wears on. Voices that before rose with competing visions of hurricane horror have gone quiet. For some, it is the first real sleep they’ve enjoyed for days.
The bus pulls into a parking lot in Mesquite, Texas, about 4:30 a.m., and Jenkins’ radio plays “I Can See Clearly Now,” the Johnny Nash song telling listeners how good the day will be.
From Mesquite, buses get instructions on carrying refugees to Dallas or points beyond. Storm survivors wait for eight hours before they go through security searches for weapons, drugs or alcohol.
The bright morning sun rises in the sky. The 530-mile journey is inching toward 18 hours when Bus 1025 finally opens its doors at a facility on the fringes of downtown Dallas.
The refugees are being housed in what was, until earlier this week, a minimum-security prison. Ironic, since a favorite synonym for the Superdome seemed to be “jail.”
Still, the ride is finally over.
“I just realized I’m back where I was,” says 56-year-old Biscuit Carter. “Free.”