St. Croix Chaos Subsides as U.S. Troops Arrive
American troops, outfitted in riot gear, armed with rifles and ordered to shoot to protect their own lives and the lives of others, arrived by the planeload Thursday on the storm-battered island of St. Croix--and its orgy of looting and shooting seemed to subside.
The troops secured the airfield at Christiansted, set up an encampment at a race track across the street and organized a command structure.
Reconnaissance patrols entered the city to assess the pillaging and violence that has swept across this resort island for three days since Hurricane Hugo ripped it open to looters.
The plundering appeared to ease for two reasons. One was the troops--most of them military police--and the federal marshals and FBI agents who had arrived before them. The other reason was that there was little left to steal. St. Croix was receiving no outside supplies, no food and no water. Worse, there were no communications on the island.
Except for a few flights in and out, there was no communication with the outside world.
Residents spoke of looters by the thousands and fear that they would ransack the homes of the more affluent now that stores had been stripped bare. Fleeing tourists told of chaos, long and heavy automatic weapons fire, robbers with machetes and prisoners--including murderers--on the loose. Some residents said the frenzy seemed to have been fueled by panic and paranoia and exaggerated fears about danger and the island’s plight.
Because of shattered communications, it was impossible to tell how many people, if any, have been injured in the lawlessness. There was a report of one person wounded in a shooting, but the report could not be confirmed. A number of people were hurt during the hurricane, although neither the total nor the extent of their injuries could be determined. Despite massive damage, there were no reports of deaths.
The troops, ordered to St. Croix on Wednesday by President Bush, began arriving at 7:15 a.m. Thursday on C-141 transports flown from Ft. Bragg, N.C.; Ft. Polk, La.; Ft. Hood, Tex., and Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. Army Col. Ned Longsworth, an Army spokesman for the mission, said the entire contingent included 1,200 Army, Air Force and Navy personnel. He said the operation was headquartered out of the 18th Airborne Company at Ft. Bragg.
The soldiers, the vast majority of them military policemen, would not be assigned formal law enforcement duties but were here to back up civil authorities, Longsworth said. “We have been deployed here to assist the civil authorities in restoring law and order and protecting public and private property.
“Martial law has not been declared,” he cautioned. “We are here only to assist civilian law enforcement.”
Longsworth said the troops were empowered to arrest civilians breaking the law in cases where there were no civilian law enforcement personnel present. He defined the rules of engagement for the mission as “a minimum amount of force consistent with accomplishing the mission and protecting the troops.”
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe, told reporters in Washington that the troops were ordered to shoot if necessary to defend themselves. “We never deploy troops if they don’t have the right to defend themselves,” Crowe said. Pentagon spokesman Fred Hoffman said the troops were operating under “primary rules of engagement.” He said that meant deadly force could be used.
But Hoffman said such force was appropriate only in self-defense or in defense of others.
The troops were armed with M-16 rifles and wore riot helmets with face shields. They carried back packs. Federal marshals, also deployed by the President along with FBI agents, began arriving late Wednesday. They already had started patroling Christiansted when the troops landed. The marshals also carried M-16s. Some were armed with MAC-10 automatic rifles.
Skip Brandon, the agent in charge of the FBI office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said 60 agents and 50 U.S. marshals had been deployed on St. Croix. He said the agents were drawn from offices around the mainland and belonged to a special Delta Force-like group trained specifically to deal with such chaotic situations.
The task force is nicknamed the Ninjas.
The federal officers might get involved in investigating charges of National Guard complicity in the looting, Brandon said. He said he had heard reports that the Coast Guard had possession of a video tape which showed National Guard troops looting stores.
Layton E. Timmons, a chief warrant officer with the Virgin Islands National Guard, conceded that some Guard members had been caught participating in the looting. But he said these were isolated cases. Timmons said that his Guard unit was getting an undeserved black eye because of a few bad apples.
“In every organization you’ve got a few . . . " he said.
Brandon said more than 200 prisoners somehow had gotten out of a Christiansted prison.
‘I don’t know whether they broke out or they were let out,” he said. Brandon said one of the major goals of the federal task force was to round up the prisoners who are still at large.
A New England couple who fled St. Croix told of an encounter with one of the prisoners.
Jim Lifton, 30, and Jennifer Wales, 27, said they were at a bar called the Rogue’s Gallery when they discovered they were drinking with a murderer.
Lifton said the killer told them:
“They just let us out. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to report back, or they’re going to recapture me, or what.”
Jim Donahue, 42, a scrap metal dealer on the island, came to Alexander Hamilton airport shortly after the military landed. He put his wife and baby on a commuter flight to Miami.
Donahue said his neighbors in a condominium complex had been patrolling their homes day and night, carrying golf clubs as weapons to scare off looters.
Within hours after Hurricane Hugo had subsided, Donahue said, looters by the thousands started showing up at grocery stores. “There’s nothing left to eat, nothing left to drink, nothing left to wear,” he said. “It’s all out here somewhere, and it’ll be sold back to somebody.”
Now that virtually all food on the island has been stolen, Donahue said his biggest fear was that pillagers would grow desperate and try to ransack the homes of the more affluent. “Once the food’s out and once the clothes are all gone, what are they going to do?” he said. “They are going to hit the condominiums.”
A group of looters showed up at his condominium complex Wednesday carrying golf clubs and bats, Donahue said, but the condominum residents chased them away with their own makeshift weapons.
Some islanders have admitted that they joined in the looting because they were afraid that if they didn’t they would have nothing to eat.
Joe Mullen, 29, of Merced, Calif., a painter with the Hess oil refinery on the island, said: “You had to loot to eat. I even did a little looting myself.”
Most residents on the island were sharply critical of their law enforcement officials.
“It was absolutely horrible, the looting was unbelievable,” said Nadine Schramm, 59, a New York native who now lives on the island. “The police department did nothing. Some of the (National Guardsmen) stood by and told people to go ahead and loot. Tell the outside world that there are many lovely island people here. It’s just a small minority who are the problem.”
Matt Cookston, 31, a land surveyor who lost his home, now rides with a loaded shotgun in the back of his four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Cookston said that while many residents were upset because of the widespread looting they also could understand why it happened.
“They (the looters) are poor and they lost everything so they’ve got to just stock up,” he said.
Asked if he was happy to see the arrival of military troops, Cookston said: “You’re damn right. They should have been here the night after it happened.”
At a Kinney shoe store at the Laraine shopping center, a few looters were picking through the debris, trying to match up what few shoes were left.
One man, who would identify himself only as “Maxcess,” looked defeated as he clutched one right gym shoe and two left children’s tennis shoes.
“We’re too late,” he said. “There’s just one of this and one of that. Nothing matches.”
On Tuesday, witnesses said, the parking lot of that same shopping center was jammed with hundreds of cars belonging to looters, and police simply watched as they broke through windows and took away merchandise.
Joe Sibley, 50, owns a construction company and operates the only ham radio on the island. He, too, was glad to see the troops--but disappointed that they did not bring any supplies for the general populace with them.
‘To Get Worse’
“We’re in a situation of anarchy and it’s bound to get worse as the food and water runs out,” he said.
Neil Hauft, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., tourist, and his wife were among the first evacuated from the island of St. Croix. Hauft described the scene before the troops arrived as one of near chaos.
“There were hundreds of people at a shopping center, literally ripping things out of the stores,” Hauft said. “But instead of stealing food and water, which is what they needed, they were stealing television sets and VCRs.”
Hauft and his wife were among about 600 people, mostly tourists, evacuated from St. Croix by late Wednesday by the Coast Guard, the Navy and a Pan American Airlines jet. The Coast Guard said it airlifted 77 shaken Americans and Canadians by C-130 to Puerto Rico and then on to Miami.
Most made haste for airline ticket counters and flights home. Among those who paused to talk to waiting reporters, there were hoots of derision at the reported remarks of U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Alexander Farrelly minimizing the chaos in St. Croix.
“The man is just completely unplugged,” said Greg Rogers, a 35-year-old management consultant from Toronto who had been vacationing at his mother’s condominium on St. Croix when Hugo and its chaotic aftermath made an urgent return to Canada seem attractive. “I don’t think he’s touched down in St. Croix since the hurricane.”
“Come on!” cried Drew Simpson, also of Toronto. “The governor’s full of s--. “
Both men described scenes of looting and a din of gunfire in the capital city of Christiansted. “All night long, heavy automatic weapons fire,” said Simpson. “We’re not talking popguns, we’re talking automatic weapons. And looting? Big trucks backed up to storefronts.”
John Wilkes, a 28-year-old Toronto accountant, called the storm’s aftermath “your worst nightmare.” Wilkes said that the lawlessness of some of the looters seemed to have had racial overtones.
“A rastafarian guy and a bunch of others had cut off traffic, and when I walked up to see what was the matter, he approached me waving a machette and said: ‘White man, what you doing . . . on this road?’ He waved it (the machete) right in my face. I got out of there.”
“When I tried to take pictures of some of the looting, they came after me with a hammer,” said Arnold Fuchs of New York, “but I didn’t see any shooting or other violence.”
Art Morales, a deeply tanned policeman from Tustin, Calif., who was vacationing on St. Croix with his wife, Timmy, said there was virtually no sign of police on the island. “They’re undermanned, with only 200 police officers in the whole place,” he said. “We had to set up our own security, police our own hotel.
“It isn’t that big a town (Christiansted). Twenty National Guardsmen properly deployed could have taken care of it.
“We were at the airport after the U.S. marshals arrived, and they were heavily armed and very intimidating,” Morales said. “But they were treating us like we were the problem, and all we wanted to do was get out of there.”
“The police were useless; the governor was useless; the National Guard was useless,” said honeymooner John Curran of Washington, D.C. “There was no attempt to create order. Driving to the airport was probably the scariest. We had armed ourselves with pieces of pipe, and then we stuck them out the windows and tried to look as menacing as we could.”
Curran said he and fellow guests at the Cormorant Beach Club were aided by the husband of the hotel’s chef, “a big Texan named Curtis, riding around in a golf cart with a pistol on his hip and a shotgun in his hand. Some people came up to the hotel and said in a pretty surly way that they were born on St. Croix and could do whatever they wanted.
“But facing a group of guests holding pipes and a guy with a shotgun, they went away.”
“We didn’t know who to trust,” said Scott Bradley of Tucson, Ariz. “It was terrifying.”
Lifton and Wales, the couple from New England, also were among the first to flee the island. They halted their vacation at Scooter Bay, traded a jeep filled with gasoline to a television news crew for two seats on a network airplane and flew to Puerto Rico.
“There was no control,” Wales said. “It’s crazy.”
At one point, she said, she saw one looter beating up another, trying to take his plunder away.
Tourists walked around Christiansted with diving knives on their belts for protection, Lifton said. He said merchants patrolled their stores with machetes and guns. But the armament did little good.
“We saw them (looters) clearing out an electronic store, everything,” Lifton said. “The national guard was helping them. Police were outnumberd, and they just stood by and watched.” Lifton said pillagers walked down Christiansted streets with TV sets in their arms. Other looters, he said, made off with truckloads of washing machines.
Some of the looters were amiable. The couple photographed several of them as they stole things. “They were helping each other; it was a team effort,” Lifton said. “They were pretty friendly to us . . . They seemed to be pretty friendly people, taking advantage of the opportunity.
“The police weren’t anywhere, (and again) the National Guard was taking part.”
Bob Secter reported from St. Croix and Richard E. Meyer from Los Angeles. Times Staff Writer Don Schanche in Miami also contributed to this story.
Cruelty Lingers--Poor Puerto Ricans struggle to recover from the massive blows of Hurricane Hugo. Page 30
HUGO COMES ASHORE Scope: 500 miles wide. Strength: Category 4 hurricane with winds of at least 135 m.p.h. Forward speed: 22 m.p.h. GETTING READY Hundreds of thousands of residents evacuated the shoreline Thursday. Military aircraft were flown out of harm’s way and naval ships put to sea. The South Carolina National Guard was called out.