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Florida detective trapped by Katrina grapples with chaos, death

BRADENTON, Fla.—When police Detective Bill Waldron headed to New Orleans on Aug. 21, it was for business: A court there wanted his testimony in a murder trial.

But with Katrina swirling in the Gulf of Mexico, Waldron became caught up in the tragedy that's engulfed the region.

His time in hell was 50 hours trapped in the chaos of New Orleans' convention center, witnessing the deaths of babies and the elderly, who died not from Katrina but from neglect.

His nightmare began calmly enough. "I knew that there was a storm off the east coast of Florida and had kept up with that, calling back home and checking on things here," Waldron said.

By Friday night, Aug. 26, Katrina was moving toward New Orleans.

At 7 a.m. Aug. 29, Katrina roared ashore. By midafternoon, as the wind and rain stopped, Waldron headed out, buying the only food he could find: a can of Pringles and some water. It would be the last meal he would have for three days.

Waldron walked around to check out the damage. Some old buildings had collapsed and windows in others were blown out. His hotel had no noticeable damage.

"A lot of people were still walking around," he said. "Some of the bars opened up and were carrying on as if nothing happened."

He couldn't help noticing something else. "There was literally no law enforcement presence," Waldron said.

By Aug. 30, the management at his hotel told guests to leave because water on nearby Canal Street was getting higher. Told to go to the nearby convention center, Waldron gathered his suitcases and walked there.

Later that afternoon, law enforcement officials opened the doors of the center to the crowd, which ultimately swelled to 25,000.

Tales of mass destruction were everywhere. "There were rampant rumors that the water was rising and that it was going to flood the convention center," Waldron said.

With people worn down by the heat and lack of water, the convention center became deadly by the next day.

"By this time people were getting very dehydrated," Waldron said. "I stayed busy trying to help people out. I'd see people collapse and would get assistance from other people to move them inside. We'd try to beg water from other people to get these people water. It just wasn't enough."

Although 12 buses arrived late that afternoon to take some of the elderly and sick to safety, it was too late for others; Waldron said he saw at least 10 people die.

One was an elderly woman who apparently died of dehydration.

"She just kept saying over and over again, `Jesus' and `angels,'" Waldron said. "We tried to cool her off with dirty water. We went to the National Guard to get something cold, and we didn't get anything. Eventually she just stopped breathing and that was it. I was very frustrated."

Using a pay phone, Waldron called the Manatee County, Fla., sheriff's office and learned they were trying to rescue him.

"It was a difficult situation to go in there and get one person," sheriff's spokesman Dave Bristow said. "We didn't want people to get upset that we were taking him out of that place, but we had sent him there and we felt we had to do anything we could to get him out."

After searching the crowd, a team of game wardens from Louisiana and Texas found Waldron. "They handcuffed me to make it look like I was being arrested," he said.

The deputies then drove all day and night and delivered Waldron to his Bradenton home at 6:30 a.m. Saturday.

"I was relieved," said Nicholas, Waldron's 16-year-old son. "It was an exciting moment when he finally made it home."

The most important lessons he learned, Waldron said, are keeping people apprised of what's going on and providing some sense of organization to calm fears and curb chaos.

"I know I'm a lot stronger than I ever thought I was," Waldron said. "I hope I can use what I learned to help other people, because there's going to be more hurricanes."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-CONVENTIONCENTER

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