Katrina: A Freight Train Screamin'
By Cary Black
Katrina: A Freight Train Screamin'
Capt. Richard M. McCurley was stationed at Engine 4 in East New Orleans.
Engine 4 was one of the busiest stations in the city. Richard (or as he preferred to be called, Ricky) was considered a star of the department. He'd been with the New Orleans Fire Department for 12 years when Katrina hit. As part of Engine 4, at the time of Katrina, Firefighter McCurley's unit and other units from District 4 including Engine 4, Engine 36, Squirt 4, Ladder 13, Car 504 and several EMS units were stationed at the Bell South Building; one of the city's 'locations of last resort' as defined by their Hurricane Plan.
The 'locations of last resort' were pre-determined locations considered to be on high ground and presumed to be sufficiently resilient during a storm to provide a safe haven for the firefighters and their equipment. There were 18 such locations across the city.
Ricky, a life-long resident of New Orleans and graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School, was highly regarded amongst his fellow firefighters. He was highly respected as being very intelligent, charming, humorous, and good-hearted. Ricky had a way about him that made the people he was with feel good.
At the time of Katrina, Ricky had a wife Kyndel, and a son Richard (Kai) who was 3 years old. His fellow firefighters commented on how important Ricky's family was to him. Ricky would routinely refuse to work overtime because to him family was more important. Ricky was also an accomplished guitarist and loved to play music.
He had a reputation for always wearing his NOFD baseball cap backwards… that was Ricky. During Katrina, Ricky, while stationed at Bell South Tower, brought his video camera and recorded the onslaught of Katrina. He chronicled the event by focusing the camera in on his wristwatch at the beginning of every new scene. He captured the visage of Katrina from the predawn hours of August 29, 2005, through the rage of the storm, through the sky clearing after, through the boats, and rescues that went on for five days. Ricky caught it all. Much of Ricky's video is included on the DVD companion to this book.
As the waters began to rise, it became painfully apparent to the men in the Bell South Building that they wouldn't be going home at the end of their shift. Operator Alan Boisdore had come to work Sunday and had happened to have his jet ski on a trailer still attached to his truck. Amongst the rest of the crew, they had two additional jet skis and a flat bed boat that the firefighters happened to bring with them upon deployment to the Bell South Building. Alan said of the boats, "We had intended to go home after the storm. We were lucky we brought them because the storm passed through, the water came up, and the water stayed up…and that's when everything broke loose."
Because of the high number of residents in East New Orleans, the firefighters of the Bell South Station stayed out longer than any other unit. As long as there were people that needed rescuing, they weren't going to shut down. Using boats, jet skis and a comprehensive grid system of the many neighborhoods, they had New Orleans East covered. And they went to it!
Alan indicated, "It didn't take long to find more boats. New Orleans is by the water and many people liked to fish and had boats in their driveways prior to the storm." By the end of the week, the firefighters of Bell South had about ten boats in which they were able to conduct rescues.
Friday was the first time Alan saw other rescuers in the area, both federal and firefighters from other Fire Departments. They fended for themselves, commandeered gas, food, medical supplies and many other necessities. They worked tirelessly pulling people off roofs or out second floor windows from dawn to dusk…bringing their fellow citizens out.
These firefighters had no communications with their families; in fact, many didn't even know where their families were. Many lived in the neighborhoods in which they were rescuing, boating past their own destroyed homes. They had each other, and they had their mission…and they got down to work.
In the five days they were conducting rescues literally thousands of people were brought to dry safety. In fact, at one point, Headquarters decided to shut down the operation, but the firefighters at Bell South refused, as there was still work to be done. They were firefighters and their work was not yet complete.
Their rescue operations were finally shut down Saturday, the sixth day after Katrina. At this time, the federal presence was large and growing. Many of the men were experiencing skin rashes and lesions from the constant exposure to the contaminated waters that occupied the city.
Operator Alan Boisdore indicated that when they left Bell South on Saturday, September 4, they boated out towards Chef Mentaur Highway where there was dry land. In fact, the highway had become a common area for bringing the victims to dry land.
They dropped their boats off at the fateful intersection of Chef Mentaur Highway and Read Blvd. There were rescue personnel present from FEMA and the military and local police. The people at the intersection provided Ricky and his crew a flat bed truck. They had heard through sporadic radio that a base camp had been set up across the river at Woodland. Alan recalled seeing all the destruction on that ride out. The truck maneuvered around debris that littered the highway. The firefighters on board held on for their dear lives as the truck proceeded.
On the Interstate, there were broken down vehicles and debris scattered all over. People were milling about; some screaming, some crying and yelling at the firefighters as they proceeded through. Many of these people had been rescued or through their own resources found dry refuge on the Interstate.
Buses had started to arrive to evacuate these people, but at the time the men were driving through on the flatbed truck, chaos was still the order of the day up on the Interstate.
By Saturday, there was significant traffic congestion as all manner of rescuers, FEMA people, evacuation vehicles and so forth were coming into the city. Congestion was extreme. When the flatbed got to the toll booth, the traffic was extremely congested.
Chief Parent happened to be at the toll building when he saw the crew of Engine 4 coming from the river. He motioned for the flatbed to pull over. On the Crescent City Connection, next to the toll station, and in front of the men, he called Ricky over, asked him to raise his right hand and swore him in as a Captain in the New Orleans Fire Department. Ricky, dressed in a dirty shirt, his NOFD baseball cap on backwards, and lesions on his back from the foul water, swore his oath and accepted his new role. With a great deal of pride, Ricky and his men proceeded on their way.
The men were put on a bus, and driven up to a church in Baton Rouge to recuperate. Ricky had heard that his wife Kyndel and Kai were staying at the Hilton in Hammond, Louisiana. Kyndel's father, Ray Peacock had reserved a lot of space at the hotel as a refuge for family and friends. Ricky jumped off the bus to find his way to the hotel.
Outside of the hotel, Ray Peacock happened to be out in the front area of Hotel lawn…he said he looked up and this dark tanned bald guy was running towards him shouting, "Mr. Ray, Mr. Ray." Peacock laughed. He said he didn't know who this fool was running up to him until he heard the Mr. Ray part. Ricky was the only one that called him Mr. Ray.
During the rescues, Ricky, along with a few of the other firefighters at Bell South, had shaved their heads in a brotherhood ritual of sorts.
Ricky had jumped off the bus so eager to see Kyndel and Kai, that he forgot his gear. They had to track it down the next day.
In the aftermath of Katrina, an entire city's infrastructure had been decimated. For months to come, many streets did not have operating traffic lights. Entire sections of the city were without power. During this time the city of New Orleans experienced some of the most intense and brutal fires in its history.
Capt. McCurley and the men of Engine 4 were busier then they had ever been during this time.
On December 2, 2005, a call came in about a natural gas leak. Engine 4 responded short one man. Ricky had ordered Alan Boisdore to stand down for the roll because of an injury Alan had suffered to his toe.
On a hydrant inspection earlier in the day, Alan was removing the cap on a hydrant. Normally they were attached with a chain, but this one was not. As a result, it fell on Alan's foot effectively breaking his toe.
Capt. McCurley, Operator Kirk Barbaran, and Firefighter Terry James left the Engine 4 station in an Engine following Code 3 protocol with lights and sirens. Operator Alan Boisdore followed them out of the training center, which was serving as their station at the time. When they got to the intersection of I-510 and Chef Menteur Highway, Alan turned right on his route towards the hospital, and Ricky's apparatus continued down Chef Menteur. That was last time Alan saw his good friend. At about 1:00 p.m., Ricky and his men were driving at 45 mph heading west on
Chef Menteur Highway. The intersection of Chef Menteur Highway and Read Boulevard (the same intersection where Ricky and his crew had picked up the flat bed truck six weeks earlier on their way out of the rescue zone), was one of the many intersections in New Orleans with non-functioning traffic lights. The intersection did have temporary stop signs in place. As the Engine entered the intersection, to the left was an 18-wheeler loaded with hurricane related debris heading north on Read Boulevard.
Capt. McCurley saw the truck and shouted, "Watch Out!!" The driver steered the engine to the right in order to avoid the tractor-trailer. The engine traveled over the concrete median between the north and southbound lanes before striking the front end of a minivan vehicle containing several independent insurance contractors working for Allstate Catastrophe.
The engine continued traveling in a westbound direction and went into a ditch that caused the engine to roll an estimated 1¼ times before coming to rest on the passenger's side of the vehicle. The driver and Capt. McCurley were ejected from the engine and the other firefighter was trapped in the cab.
An ambulance arrived at the scene at about 1:20 p.m. Engine 36 arrived on the scene at approximately 1:38 p.m. and found the driver lying in the road approximately 20 feet directly in front of the engine. The driver had been ejected through the front window. The driver was treated at the scene of the accident and transported to a hospital. Capt. McCurley was found pinned under the engine and pronounced dead at the scene. The firefighter riding in the seat behind Capt. McCurley was trapped in the cab and, had to be extricated before being transported to a hospital.
Prior to Ricky's passing, two National Guardsman were at the scene from their post on Read Boulevard. They indicated that Ricky was radioing in for assistance for his men and the people in the minivan just prior to dying. They rushed a Chaplain to the scene to administer last rights to Ricky in the moments before he died. "He was an excellent young captain who did some fine rescue work for us during Katrina," said Parent, speaking in slow measured tones.
Chief Parent indicated, "We've always been a close-knit group here at the Fire Department, but Katrina pulled us even closer; and he and I personally had grown closer and I had great respect for him."
This book is dedicated to his memory and in honor of all the firefighters that fought the aftermath of Katrina.