School buses sail to the rescue

Posted on November 1, 2005

The following account details hurricane-related rescue and relief efforts taken on by the transportation department at St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Luling, La. It was written by Transportation Operations Coordinator Gary Martin.

St. Charles Parish was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, but the eye of the hurricane passed over neighboring Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish. Many of the evacuees came to our parish with no transportation, few belongings and many needs. Our transportation department was able to help our neighbors in many ways.

On the eve of the storm, our drivers pulled together and worked many long hours to take our residents to safety. They became vehicles of hope and salvation. In the storm’s aftermath, they put their own troubles behind them and became leaders at shelters statewide, reaching out to help our residents and winning their trust.

Back home, our buses rescued hundreds of frightened people fleeing their flooded homes. We got them to the first meals they’d eaten in days and much-needed medical assistance and care.

Drivers returned to the parishes, anxious to see their homes and families. They’d done their share and were tired.

But later that night, after they had already driven all day, 350 evacuees from Jefferson Parish came to our parish in dire need of food, water and emergency medical care. We sent out the call for drivers, and they left their homes and families and returned to help. Several of them drove until 5 a.m. the next morning. The Red Cross told me that they saved the lives of more than 170 people that night.

While the district was closed, our drivers assisted the residents of the local shelter, helping them get medicine, clothing and supplies.

Then there was the mission to the convention center, which is now the milestone of my life.

On Sept. 1, around 10:30 p.m., I was sitting in the St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC) about ready to call it a night when a request for two school buses came over the radio.

I asked Major Sam Zinna if they were requesting buses for the evacuees. He said, no, that they needed the buses for a mission to rescue some St. Charles Parish residents and nurses stranded and in danger at the Morial Convention Center. They needed a regular bus and a bus with a lift. I immediately said, “I want to go.”

Captain John Walsdorf came in later. I also made sure he knew I wanted to go on the mission. I reminded him that I was a former Army military policeman.

During the meeting to discuss the mission, I encouraged them to use only one bus. One bus would make it easier to get in and out with. They were also concerned that there were people who were unable to climb the stairs. I said I’d pick them up and put them on the bus.

Not much later, I heard the SWAT team coming down the hallway in their vests and helmets. As I stood at the door of the EOC, Captain Walsdorf stopped and signaled to me, “Let’s go, Gary.” I went up the stairs two at a time. He laughed and told me to save some of it for the mission.

Captain Walsdorf told me that we were going to rescue approximately 40 people from the convention center. There might be gunfire and dead bodies.

We had two unmarked police cars — one in front and one in the rear of the bus — and we drove into New Orleans with all lights out. Only the ambient light from lights on the overpass above us were lit. Other than that, it was pitch dark. We parked out of the line of sight of the convention center.

About 30 yards ahead was a completely vandalized New Orleans Police car. The SWAT team and National Guardsmen took up their positions all around us. My job was to stay at the door of the bus to quickly load the evacuees.

I was looking toward the front of the bus, where the National Guardsmen said the convention center was, when someone bumped into my back and said, “Excuse me.” It was the people we were picking up. They were behind us.

I told them to keep their heads down, move to the back of the bus and not look out the windows. I literally had to push one big guy up the stairs.

Many of them had dropped their bags. As I reached for the bags, the call came over the radio, “Move the bus! Move the bus!” People at the convention center were beginning to challenge SWAT team members at the edge of our security zone. One deputy said they were moving toward them almost like zombies.

When we pulled up to the St. Charles Hospital, the people on the bus broke into tears. Staff members of the hospital and the EOC, sheriff’s deputies and family members of the staff had lined the emergency ramp and were clapping and cheering.

Related Topics: law enforcement

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