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Officials debunk one of the most disturbing Katrina stories

NEW ORLEANS—It may have been the most disturbing story of death that emerged after Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans and its suburbs.

A week after Katrina hit, Knight Ridder and other media outlets reported on Sept. 5 that 22 bodies had been found tied to a single rope near tiny Violet, La., in devastated St. Bernard Parish. The parish, or county, is east of New Orleans.

The story was sent around the world. Knight Ridder moved two stories on Sept. 5 that quoted Sheriff Jack Stephens saying rescuers had found the bodies tied with rope and wrapped around a pole.

The next day, residents of Sydney, Australia, read the newspaper headline, "Ring of 22 bodies found lashed around a pole."

The reports contained no details about how these victims ended up tied to the rope.

Last week, St. Bernard Parish Fire Chief Tom Stone said the reports weren't true.

"It's a hurricane urban myth. It's fictitious. It never happened. Thank God," he said.

While news reports about the rope of death contained purported confirmation from a top police official, Stone said that early on, parish rescue personnel had no reliable way to confirm or deny much of anything. Travel was by boat only, and radio communication was spotty at best.

Another story of mass death in the parish around the same time was quickly defused after a local congressman retracted his statement that 100 rescued people had died in a warehouse awaiting evacuation.

Stone, who helped coordinate rescue efforts at Chalmette High School, where 2,000 were stranded with little food or water, said he's discovered the probable source of the story about the roped victims.

He said that a resident of the affluent Jumonville subdivision, near Violet, who evacuated during the height of the storm surge told a rescuer that he saw people roped together.

"That's all he said, as far as I can figure out," Stone said.

The story quickly spread among harried sheriff's deputies and firefighters in dozens of commandeered pleasure boats, but they had to concentrate on saving the living. Somewhere along the way, the number 22 became attached to the story.

"It was getting to the point that if I didn't actually see it, I didn't believe it," Stone said. "There were a lot of rumors, but then there were a lot of truths."

Finally, around Sept. 5, Stone said he and the parish coroner went with searchers to the Jumonville development but were initially stymied by thick mud from the storm surge. Front loaders scraped away much of the black ooze, but not a single body was found, he said.

Since that time, rescuers have thoroughly searched the 68,000-population parish.

Stone has completed a map showing where each of the bodies of the 123 people who died in the parish was found. Jumonville doesn't contain a single red dot indicating that someone died there. There are no clusters of dots indicating mass deaths anywhere on the map.

"We're still looking for a few people, but they are not from that subdivision," he said.

Capt. Mike Sanders, the information officer for the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department, hadn't heard about victims on a rope but said he's been cut off from news reports and broadcasts.

Sanders, a former television reporter and news anchor who's weathered several hurricanes, said the story could have grown because people were afraid and confused.

"People are so concerned about what may be found back at their homes that stories get embellished," he said.

Sanders said that Sheriff Stephens' "was probably reacting to the best information available at the time," when he commented to the media about the roped dead.

Jumonville residents also heard the story.

"When we heard about it, we were concerned because everyone knows everyone around here," said Joan Garafolo, who was retrieving items on Thursday from her wrecked home. Garafolo said the family had retreated to Little Rock, Ark., and heard about the deaths on television there.

"We thought it might be one of our neighbors," she said, adding that about a week ago she heard the story was just a rumor.

But her 16-year-old son, Ray, said he found it suspicious.

"I found it hard to believe," he said. "There were too many on one rope."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-MYTH

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