Pair Is Arrested Over 34 Hurricane Deaths

ST. BERNARD PARISH, Louisiana -- There were flowerboxes on the railings and patios for patients to sit out in the bayou air. The rooms were clean and bright. Residents seemed well cared for by a staff that organized bingo games, showed movies on a big-screen television and celebrated Mass every Friday.

Such charms persuaded Steve Gallodoro and his siblings to entrust their increasingly feeble 82-year-old father to the care of St. Rita's Nursing Home in November. Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Gallodoro, a parish firefighter, was back at the building -- this time among the first rescue workers to arrive at the flooded nursing home.

Gallodoro, 55, plunged into the water and forced his way through a window after seeing a body. In water 120 centimeters deep, he tried to make his way down a hallway toward his father's room.

He encountered another body. Then a third. And stopped. "I was not prepared to go any further," he said. "I knew what I was going to find."

St. Rita's was supposed to be a place where patients could live out their final years in comfort and peace. Instead, it had become a scene of horror -- elderly patients abandoned in floodwaters that rose nearly to the ceilings.

On Tuesday, the Louisiana attorney general announced the arrests of the home's operators, Salvador and Mable Mangano, who were charged with 34 counts of negligent homicide after surrendering to Medicaid fraud investigators in Baton Rouge. The couple was booked into prison in Baton Rouge and released.

"We've got 34 people drowned in a nursing home that should have been evacuated," said Charles Foti, the state attorney general. "They were asked if they wanted to be evacuated. They refused. They had a contract to move. They did not." The operators' actions, he said, "resulted in the deaths of their patients."

A lawyer for the couple said in an interview last week that accounts that blamed the owners for the deaths were "grossly in error."

"At the end of the day, what my folks did to try to rescue these folks was nothing short of 100 percent heroic," said attorney James Cobb. "The idea that the owners abandoned these folks is absolutely not true."

St. Rita's is several miles beyond the most populated part of the parish. It is a tin-roofed brick structure with two wings branching off the main entrance. Overall, St. Rita's reputation was good, and government records show it was among the region's better nursing homes.

But in a part of the country where hurricanes threaten the coast with regularity, and fizzle more often than pummel, complacency can creep in. And for nursing homes, evacuations themselves carry considerable risk.

Officials said at least two patients at nursing homes in Plaquemines Parish, south of St. Bernard, died last year from the stress of being relocated in advance of Hurricane Ivan, which veered off toward the Florida Panhandle, leaving the area largely unscathed.

And because nursing homes bear the costs of transporting and providing for their patients, evacuations are a financial blow to small businesses like St. Rita's.

Bryan Bertucci, the parish coroner, said the Manganos informed him they were staying put the Saturday before the storm. "I called Mable at 2 p.m., told her we had two buses and two drivers," Bertucci said. "Her response was, 'I have five nurses, a generator; I've spoken to families and they say it's OK.'"

What happened to the patients as the water began flowing in through the doors and windows isn't entirely clear. By some accounts, the Manganos and their nursing staff mounted a valiant effort to save whomever they could.

Russell Palazzolo, 38, said he was a friend of the Manganos and had been told that they had evacuated dozens of patients to their house, which is on the same property as the nursing home.

"They had 40 people at their house on the second floor," Palazzolo said.

On Tuesday, St. Bernard rescue crews moved out across the parish in boats to search for survivors. Gallodoro said he was heartened when he heard an initial report that the area surrounding St. Rita's had managed to stay dry.

But at the end of the next day, he and a councilman set out in a boat to survey the damage, and found St. Rita's half-submerged. Gallodoro said he jumped out and swam to the front doors, trying to smash through the glass with the boat's anchor.

Gallodoro said he was torn over whether to go recover his father's body himself. The fire chief gave him permission, but said there were no body bags, and that there was no place to take his father's corpse. The chief also warned that he would probably carry that final image of his father for the rest of his life.

Gallodoro said he decided to resume work with his St. Bernard Fire Department colleagues -- a decision he's been replaying in his mind ever since.

It would be more than 10 days before the corpses in St. Rita's were removed. Officials who emerged from the facility said the bodies were so blackened and bloated that they were unrecognizable.

"I was a good fireman," he said. "I acted as a good fireman should act. But I question how I acted as a son. I only hope my father's up there and understands we were trying to save lives and it was difficult to leave him in the water."