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Bittersweet rescue at nursing home

Man brings elderly to safety, including owner facing homicide charges
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When the owners of a New Orleans nursing home were rescued after Hurricane Katrina, they did not tell anyone about the patients they left behind.  Now they face charges of negligent homicide.

Their rescuer, Donald Ecklund, says he "waded through bodies to get to people that were alive." 

The 34-year-old helped rescue more than two dozen patients from the rooftop of St. Rita‘s nursing home.  That‘s the same nursing home where at least 34 people died when the hurricane hit.

Ecklund, who also rescued one of the owners, now tells his story to MSNBC-TV's Rita Cosby.

RITA COSBY, LIVE AND DIRECT HOST: First of all, what was it like when you arrived at St. Rita‘s?

DONALD ECKLUND, SAVED ST. RITA‘S NURSING HOME PATIENTS: There were people standing on top of the roof, flagging us to come help.  It was nurse‘s aides.  They unfortunately left the people that couldn‘t walk and obese in the nursing home to drown.  We were in a boat.  We ran the boat through the door of the nursing home and got out as many people as possible and took them to safe shelter at an old courthouse.  We made several trips back and forth to the nursing home, bringing people to safe shelter.  I wasn‘t aware that there was a man about 150 yards away, on top of a roof.  We saved him eventually.  Come to find out, he was the owner of the nursing home.

When we finally got him back to safe shelter, my first question to him was, 'Why didn‘t you evacuate?'  He gave me no response.  He looked at me with a snobby look, and he walked away.  Some time during the night, he vanished.  He took a boat, and no one has seen him again.

So that left me and a friend of mine, John Kenney, to help these people.  So we had to go into stores and get food, water, adult diapers, different things they needed to survive.  No one knew where he was at for four days, so it took a lot of food and water to feed these people.  So we kept going back and forth to the store, getting supplies as we needed.  And again, no one knew where we were at for four days.  Once the water subsided...

COSBY: Now, Donald, let me just ask you real quick — because had you known that this man — I think it‘s pretty interesting stuff, what you‘re telling us right here.  This man, Salvador Mangano, he is one of the owners who‘s now being charged with negligent homicide.  You‘re saying he stood on the roof.  You asked him why didn‘t he evacuate, and he didn‘t say anything.  Then he leaves and left those people to die there for four days, while you were trying to save some of them.

If you knew now that he was the owner and you know now that he‘s charged with negligent homicide, along, I believe, with his wife, what would you do?  Would you have saved him?

ECKLUND: He would still have been on that roof.

COSBY: You would have left him? Just because of what you saw?

ECKLUND:  I would have left him in a heartbeat.  I made a conscious decision to stay.  Those elderly people didn‘t have a choice.  That‘s why they were in a nursing home.  That was his responsibility.  And again, if I knew that that was the owner, he would still be on that roof today.

COSBY: How would you, just very briefly, Donald, describe just the conditions.  I mean, is there any doubt in your mind that these people literally left these people to die?  Because that‘s what they‘re being accused of.

ECKLUND: Yes, they did.  They literally left them people there to die.  That is my opinion.

COSBY: So disappointing.  If you could look at the owner, if you could look at the owner in the face right now, Donald, what would you say to him, if you could look at Salvador Mangano, who was on that roof, what would you say to him now?

ECKLUND: I would probably go to jail.  I probably would have to punch him in the eye one time.

COSBY: And I bet those families want to do a lot worse.  Donald, thank you.  And at least, we do applaud the efforts of you trying to save at least those dozen of folks who you did rescue. 

Watch 'Rita Cosby Live & Direct' each night at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.