Chattanooga Couple Survives Hurricane, Marauding Gangs In New Orleans

Make Dramatic Midnight Escape From The French Quarter

Thursday, September 1, 2005

A Chattanooga couple survived several terrifying days in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the midst of a powerful hurricane and marauding gangs.

"The looters were equally as terrifying as the hurricane," said Darrin Ledford, who was safe back at his office at ImageWorks in the Saddlery Building on South Broad Street on Thursday.

He and his girlfriend, Kelly Ziegler, went to New Orleans on a bus trip, arriving last Thursday. Mr. Ledford said, "We knew there was a storm around Miami, but it was not a concern."

But he said the hurricane had taken a turn toward New Orleans by Saturday, and they prepared to leave. Then they found that their Delta flight had been canceled and no rental cars were available.

"I feel that Delta stranded thousands of people by getting out so early," he said.

Mr. Ledford said they hunkered down at the Chateau Sonesta, a four-story hotel built in the mid-1800s that had weathered numerous storms.

He said the hotel staff was great. "We owe our lives to them."

The remaining guests were placed in interior rooms on the second and third floors as the big hurricane roared toward New Orleans.

Mr. Ledford said when the storm hit "the winds were like a pressure washer. Objects that you would think could not be moved were gone in a blink of an eye. In a storm like that, we were nothing. We were totally helpless."

He said they lay hunkered down as items crashed around them.

Then they "felt a very strong sense of relief" when the repeated powerful gales finally calmed.

Mr. Ledford said afterwards they went outside to survey the damage, though they were warned not to stray far from the hotel. He said they began to see looting and men carrying guns on the streets.

They went back inside and looked down "and saw things that really frightened us."

He said the hotel had stockpiled food, "and we knew the people outside knew that. We could see them looking up at us. We were afraid they were going to come in after us."

Mr. Ledford said New Orleans residents had initially been happy that the levee had held. Then came word that it had started to breach.

He said, "We could see the water coming toward us. That is when the looting really got bad."

He said they were escorted by armed guards as they switched to a taller hotel, the plush Royal Sonesta. They were placed in a second floor balcony room.

Mr. Ledford said the hotel manager, Hans, had some connections and somehow was able to arrange for two tour buses to come to rescue the hotel guests. He said the bus had to come at night because the gangs on the streets did not want them to leave.

He said they got on the bus in the dark, and it started out along the water-filled streets. He said it was one of the first vehicles to leave the city.

Mr. Ledford said residents at one point built a barrier to block the buses, but police officers drew their guns and moved the barrier out of the way.

He said they and the other guests were peering ahead watching the driver negotiate the narrow streets of the French Quarter through the high water. "We knocked over a few things in getting out," he said.

Finally, the two buses escaped the besieged city and made it to I-10. The guests were then taken to Houston along one of the few highways open.

He said after reaching there, American Airlines made special provision for the New Orleans refugees to fly first class home.

Mr. Ledford said the experience seems even more harrowing as they see reports of the death-dealing devastation dealt by the hurricane.

He said they are urging everyone to make contributions to the American Red Cross.

Mr. Ledford said, "If we were not able to somehow make it out, those contributions would be headed for us right now."

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