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'She said, "I love you.... We're going to die"'

'She said, "I love you.... We're going to die"'
Fire and rescue personnel head out to save a family trapped by Hurricane Katrina in Pascagoula, Miss. (Michael Spooneybarger / AP)

The phone call lasted just long enough to break Bridgette Medley's heart.

Medley, her husband and her 3-year-old daughter had sought shelter from Hurricane Katrina at a downtown hotel. Water seeped through the ceiling and wind made the building shudder as they slept on the hard floor of a ballroom. But they were safe.

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Her siblings and parents were not.

Like about 50,000 other residents of the city, they had ignored the mayor's mandatory evacuation order and elected to ride out the storm at the family home in the Eighth Ward, a neighborhood of shotgun houses, railroad tracks and industrial canals on the city's east side.

By 7 a.m. Monday, the water started rising. Medley's siblings and parents pulled down the stairs to the attic and climbed up. At 7:57 a.m., Medley's 48-year-old sister, Stephany Johnson, managed to get through on her cellphone.

"She was panicking," Medley said. "The water was up to their ankles in the house and rising fast -- in a house that is 5 feet off the ground to start.

"She said, 'I love you.' " Medley struggled to keep the tears from spilling out. "And then she said, 'We're going to die.' "

Then the line went dead.

Throughout the day, the two sisters maintained a frantic, frustrating conversation in spurts and stops.

Hundreds of families found themselves in a similar situation, divided by choice, chance and fate. Authorities said that by nightfall, 200 people in the city were stranded on rooftops, and more were trapped in attics awaiting rescue. Scores more in surrounding towns were in similar straits.

People sought help from one of the only radio stations on the air: WWL. They called to explain how their friend or relative got trapped in the attic or on the roof, then provided addresses and cross streets in case rescuers were listening.

"Please, sir. We don't know what else to do," said a woman who gave her name as Betty. "It's my sister. They're stuck on the roof. And her two kids are there."

"We'll see if we can't get some response over there," said the radio host, Bob Del Giorno. "We can't guarantee."

Seconds later: "Let's go to Yvonne."

"My daughter is on the roof!" Yvonne said. "She was in the attic until 10 and then she broke through the roof and climbed up there."

"Maybe we can help," Del Giorno said. "Hopefully."

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Others waited by the phone. There was nothing else they could do.

Patricia Penny had begged her son, Billy, 34, to leave. But he was afraid to abandon his five cats and the dog he was watching for friends, so he and his girlfriend stayed at their home on the east side of New Orleans.

Penny last heard his voice in an 8 a.m. phone call. He was blunt: "It's bad." An enormous magnolia tree had fallen over in the front yard, and the storm had ripped a deck off the house. The water was rising and it was too late to leave.

Penny said Monday night that she was sure her son had climbed onto the roof (and cut a hole behind him for the animals to escape).

She eventually reached someone with St. Bernard Parish who was working with emergency crews. The word was not good. The entire parish, he told her, does not have a single fire engine or police car that still worked.

"They are operating from on top of a building," she said. "They are just going out in boats with a bullhorn trying to find people."

She was certain her son was alive, Penny said.

"I raised both my children myself," she said. "I know them so well that when I think about one of them, they'll call me. It's true. I know him that well. And I know that he is a survivor."

New Orleans is surrounded by water, and much of the city rests below sea level in a bowl-shaped depression.

Even when the sun is shining, the city depends on a complex and often fragile system of protective levees, as well as enormous pumps to expel water that collects in the bowl.

The flooding was worse in the city's eastern districts. In the neighborhood where Medley's father, a postal worker, and her mother, a nurse, had raised four children in a single-story stucco house, the water had nowhere to go, even hours after Katrina had passed.

Medley's family home is close to an industrial canal, and serious storms had often brought water to the curb out front.

"But never inside," Medley said. "Never, ever."

That's why Medley's parents and two of her siblings elected to stay. They knew that Katrina was big, Medley said. But how bad could it be?

The last major hurricane to hit New Orleans directly was Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

At 9 a.m., Medley was able to get through to her sister again. Now the water was 3 feet deep in the house. There were two windows in the attic, and if her relatives broke the windows and contorted their bodies just right, they might be able to get to the roof, Medley said. But her parents are frail and in their 70s, she said.

"That might work for my brother and sister," she said. "But I can't imagine my parents making it out."

By noon, the water was 3 feet from the first-floor ceiling and still rising. Medley had enlisted relatives in Texas and Georgia to call the National Guard in hopes of getting a rescue party to the house.

"No luck," Medley said. "Not yet. All we can do is pray. There's just so much water, and it's still raining hard."

She paused.

"I think ... I mean, I think they're going to drown," she said. "I really do."

At 3 p.m., she got through again.

"What is the water doing?" she asked. "Well, what do you see through the window? Look out the window! What do you see when you look at Mrs. Jones' house?"

The water, her sister reported, appeared to have stabilized -- not dropping, but not rising anymore either.

"OK," Medley said. "That's good."

At 6 p.m., another call.

Her sister told her that she had reached a person. "A real, human person," Medley said.

The National Guard was sending a boat. They were saved.

"Praise the Lord!" Medley shouted. "Hallelujah!"

The family had already made a pact for the next hurricane -- no more splitting up.

"Everybody is leaving next time," Medley said. "More importantly, everybody is leaving together."

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