Australians’ Horrific Tale of Survival
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Rape threat to our women
By CHRIS TINKLER and DARYL PASSMORE
AUSTRALIAN survivors of Hurricane Katrina told last night of their dramatic escape from New Orleans and the unfolding civil disaster in city.
The group, joyful at fleeing the nightmare of the Louisiana city, lauded one of its members as a hero. Bud Hopes, of Brisbane, was praised for saving dozens of tourists as the supposed safe haven of the city’s Superdome became a hellhole.
“I would have to say that Bud is solely responsible for our evacuation,” Vanessa Cullington, 22, of Sydney, told the Sunday Herald Sun by mobile phone from a bus carrying 10 Australians to safety in Dallas, Texas.
“I dread to think what would have happened if we hadn’t got out. It’s so great to be free.”
News of the group’s escape came as reports said as many as 10,000 people might have been killed by the hurricane and its aftermath, and President George Bush ordered more troops and an increased aid effort for the stricken Gulf of Mexico states.
As the Australians left the Superdome, food and water were almost non-existent and the stiflingly hot arena was filled with 25,000 people and the stench of human waste. Gangs stalked the tourists and women were threatened with rape.
“Bud took control. He was calm and kept it together the whole time,” Ms Cullington said.
Mr Hopes, 32, said: “That was the worst place in the universe. Ninety-eight per cent of the people around the world are good. In that place, 98 per cent of the people were bad.
“Everyone brought their drugs, they brought guns, they brought knives. Soldiers were shot.
“It was like a refugee camp within a prison.
“It was full on. It was the worst thing I have seen in my life. I have never been so frightened.”
Realising that foreigners were a target, Mr Hopes and the other Aussies gathered tourists from Europe, South America and elsewhere into one part of the building.
“There were 65 of us, so we were able to look after each other — especially the girls who were being grabbed and threatened.” Mr Hopes said.
He said they had organised escorts for the women when they had gone for food or to the toilet, and rosters to keep guard while others slept.
“We sat through the night just watching each other, not knowing if we would be alive in the morning.”
John McNeil, 20, of Brisbane, said the worst point had come after two days when soldiers had told them the power in the dome was failing and there was only 10 minutes worth of gas left.
“I looked at Bud and said, ‘That will be the end of us’,” Mr McNeil said.
“The gangs . . . knew where we were. If the lights had gone out we would have been in deep trouble. We prayed for a miracle and the lights stayed on.”
Mr Hopes said the Australians owed their lives to a National Guard Staff Sgt Garland Ogden, who had broken the rules to get the tourists out of the dome, with 60 people being evacuated to a medical centre.
“We did some shifts at the hospital to help nurse the sick to say thank you. It was a real Aussie thing,” he said.
As the bus carrying the Australians crossed the Texan border, spirits were high.
“We’ve had hotdogs and chips and everyone is laughing,” Mr Hopes said.
Later, the bus arrived at Dallas Convention Centre, where the Australians were processed.
Family and friends gathered at the Brisbane home of Mr McNeil’s parents, Peter and Mary, where they were joined by Mr Hopes’s sister, Debbie Browne.
Mrs McNeil broke down when she saw images of her son leaving New Orleans.
“There have been times during this past week when we didn’t know if we would see him again,” she said.
Mr McNeil said he could see a change in his son.
“They’ve been traumatised,’ he said. ‘I think they’ve witnessed several atrocities.”
The other Australians on the bus were Emma Hardwick, of Sydney; Simon Wood, of Wyalkatchem, WA; Michael Ryan, of Lithgow, NSW; Yasmin Bright, of Newcastle; Michelle and Lisa van Grinsven, of Sydney; and Elise Sims, Tea Tree Gully, Adelaide.
Meanwhile, three Australian couples were safe in Los Angeles, awaiting flights home after being rescued from New Orleans by a Channel 7 news crew.
Tim and Joanne Miller, of Rockhampton, Garry and Cynthia Jones, of Brisbane, and Jack and Gloria Slinger, of Perth, crammed into a four-wheel-drive vehicle with reporter Mike Amor and two colleagues for the early morning dash.
The crew had arranged to pick up two couples from the building where they were holed up and found the Slingers on the streets.
“They were very wary about about coming out of the building. It was a pretty frightening scene — bodies, shootings, looters,” Amor said.
A phone call in the middle of the night gave hope to relatives of Brisbane’s Fiona Seidel and her sister-in-law, Katie Maclean.
Mrs Maclean’s husband, Andrew, was contacted by a New Orleans police officer who said he had seen the pair get on a bus.
Also, in addition to the survival story of the Australians, you can read about a similar ordeal experienced in the same hell, by some British. Click here for that tale of terror.