A hard day's night for EMTs in Big Easy
People were dropping dead right there on the roadway.
"Dehydration, malnutrition," Carl Kent said. "Some of them were there three or four days without food or water. All we could do was try to get some of the sickest people into the ambulance and out of there alive."
The scene he described occurred on the New Orleans causeway, a sanctuary of last resort for the stranded, several days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.
Kent and four other emergency medical technicians at Guardian Angel Ambulance Service in Homestead just returned from a fortnight's travels through the Louisiana muck. Invited to descend into the hell of a ruined region, the quintet didn't think twice about accepting.
"We wanted to get down there and help," said Kent, 42, of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, who was accompanied by Scott Snyder, of South Park, Brock Littleton, of Dravosburg, Justin Matesic, of West Mifflin, and Greg Magee, of Monroeville.
Hearing a Louisiana ambulance company's plea for assistance made through the American Ambulance Association, Guardian Angel owner John McAfee decided to send two crews to the storm-ravaged state.
Of the five EMTs who made the trip, Kent probably had the least difficulty convincing family members that he had to go despite the safety risks. His wife, Sharon, also is an EMT and his supervisor at the ambulance service.
"She knows me," Kent said. "She knew as soon as the opportunity came up that I was going to go down there."
The crews drove 20 hours to Baton Rouge, which the hurricane battered but -- unlike New Orleans -- failed to submerge.
Their job there was to transport storm victims being treated at an overflowing, makeshift triage center at Louisiana State University's basketball arena.
"We had to get them to the closest hospital with available beds in Port Charles, which is about a 280-mile round trip," Kent said. "We put about 4,000 miles on (the ambulances)."
They also made the haunting, aforementioned trip to take the most ailing and infirm of the causeway evacuees to the LSU arena triage.
"It affected me," Kent said. "Those people had lost everything. They were stranded in the hot sun with only the clothes on their back."
Forced to endure the unendurable, the volatile crowd became even more agitated as the hours dragged on. As the sun began to go down, Kent became concerned for his safety.
"I wasn't worried initially, but when night started coming and people realized they would be stuck there for another day on the causeway, things got pretty tense," he said. "We made it out OK, though."
After being relieved by other Guardian Angels EMTs and returning home Tuesday, Kent's mind wanders often to what he witnessed in Katrina's aftermath. He won't soon forget the images.
"I've been doing this for 22 years. I've been through tornadoes and floods and stuff like that," he said. "But I've never seen anything close to the destruction I saw down there."