Rumors run rampant after Ivan sweeps across Panhandle

The Associated Press

One rumor has it that a tornado hit a hospital and killed 157 people, another that a 40-foot tidal wave washed 20 people to their deaths and a third has hundreds of bodies being hidden away in a morgue.

The rumor mill has been going full tilt since Hurricane Ivan whipped the Florida Panhandle with 130 mph winds last week.

That prompted Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby on Tuesday to deny that he was hiding bodies of people supposedly killed during and after the storm.

"There are not dozens and hundreds of bodies hid anywhere," McNesby said during a nightly news briefing by local officials.

McNesby did announce two more storm-related deaths to bring Escambia's toll to 10. They brought the state count to at least 18 and the national number to at least 56.

Trevor LeCroy, 70, of Pensacola, died from a heart attack after clearing debris and Helen Mitchell, 58, of Century, died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a portable generator.

Mitchell's husband, who was not identified, was in critical condition at the University of South Alabama Medical Center in Mobile, Ala., McNesby said.

He said portable morgues were parked behind Pensacola's Sacred Heart Hospital, site of the county's morgue .

"They're there, but they're not full of people," McNesby said. "How anybody could possibly believe that a sheriff anywhere in the United States could hide 100 dead people is beyond my imagination."

One frantic report about a body being found turned out to be a mannequin. Other rumors had it that a local utility was giving out $300 food vouchers and that ambulances were secretly removing bodies from a devastated neighborhood in the dark of night.

Pensacola News Journal opinion editor Carl Wernicke has been fielding some of the rumor calls. He wrote a column debunking them and urging people to take everything they hear with a grain of salt.

Wernicke said in an interview that one caller said he had gotten his information from four people he considered good sources.

"I said, 'Sir, just disregard it,' " Wernicke said. "He said 'I want to, but I consider these good, reliable people."

Escambia County spokeswoman Sonya Smith gets two or three calls a day from reporters checking out stories about hidden bodies and other rumors.

"Once we know there's no truth to it we pitch the phone message," she said.

Seven people remain missing in Escambia.

"Those people are not believed necessarily to be deceased," McNesby said. "They are simply unaccounted for."

McNesby's major crimes unit -- seven officer and two supervisors -- has been focusing on finding the missing. The initial count was 12, but five people were found Sunday in condominium units on Perdido Key, a barrier island, where they had ridden out the storm.

Search teams have gone to the homes of people who are reported missing and officers try to contact their family members.

Some people were reported missing by neighbors who didn't know them well. Authorities have no name, only a description, for one person on the missing list. Another who was reported missing died a year ago, sheriff's Lt. Eddie Barnard said.

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