Behind an iconic photo, one family’s tale of grief
Edgar Hollingsworth refused to leave his home. Then Katrina hit.
BATON ROUGE — When she saw the picture in the newspaper, she couldn’t speak. There was her front porch, bare of the hanging spider plants she had taken down for the storm. And there in the arms of a soldier lay her husband, emaciated and unconscious, hooked up to oxygen and F uids.
It was 17 days after she had kissed him goodbye, 16 days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, 15 days after the F oodwaters rose to ? ll the bowl that is New Orleans.
Weeks later, remembering her ? rst sight of the photograph, Lillian Hollingsworth blinks back the tears that she could not stop then. “ I just held the paper and looked at it for a while,” she says, and adds, barely audibly, “ I was hoping they had rescued him.”
They had tried. But Edgar Hollingsworth, died two days after he was found.
By then the photograph, taken by Bruce Chambers of The Orange County ( Calif.) Register,
had been on the front pages of more than
20 newspapers. And it had become a symbol of all that went so terribly wrong in the
wake of Katrina.
Yet the story behind the photo is richer, more complicated and more painful than that. It is the story of one family and thousands of others, one ordeal that re F ects what tens of thousands en- 74,
dured. It is the story of a stubborn man who was proud of his home and his Army service, and the loved ones who now - nd themselves in tragic straits all too common in Katrina’s wake: bereaved, homeless and jobless, separated from each other, facing empty days and uncertain futures.
Lillian Hollingsworth, 67, sits in a stark little garden apartment 75 miles from home, in a city in which she knows no one but her son.
It is furnished with a card table and chairs, a TV, two outdoor chaises and a couple of air mattresses.
“One d ay e veryth ing can be - ne,” she says in the gentle voice of a Southern lady. “ The next day you have nothing.”
A fateful decision
Lillian and Edgar Hollingsworth lived a modest version of the American Dream.
She was a secretary, and he worked at an A&P warehouse. They had a son, Wesley, and in 1974 bought a one- story “ side- by- side” house in the Broadmoor neighborhood. Edgar kept it clean and in good repair; Lillian had potted plants and gardens of roses, geraniums, poinsettias and periwinkle.
And she decorated. She redid the walls. She bought burgundy and gold wall borders to match her curtains. “ I’d - xed up my house so pretty,” she says. “ My house was paid for. So I was just going to relax and enjoy my retirement.”
Like many city residents, the Hollingsworths did not drive much outside town. Their 1992 Chevy Corsica “ wasn’t in good enough shape to take it on the highway,” Lillian says. So when Mayor Ray Nagin advised his constituents to evacuate, she reserved a van with a rental car company. She wrote down h er c on - rmation n umber, told her husband the plan and packed a suitcase with his clothes.
On Sundaymorning, Aug. 28, she went to the airport to get the van, only to be told that there were no vehicles available.
“ I was really upset, and I was really scared,” she says. “ The storm was coming, and they wanted everybody out of the city.”
Families across New Orleans were scrambling to come up with plans. The Hollingsworths decided to take refuge with relatives who had second D oors. Wesley’s two sons would go to an aunt’s house with their mother, his ex- wife. Lillian and Edgar would go to Wesley’s second- D oor apartment in the Mid City neighborhood, less than 3 miles away.
But Edgar refused to go.
His grandsons, age 16 and 21, begged him to leave. So did his wife, son and former daughter- inlaw. “ If the storm comes, we’re not going to be able to get back to you for a couple of days,” Lillian warned.
But he could not see the sense in leaving for another Dood-prone neighborhood nearby.
“ Don’t worry,” he said. “ I’ll be just as safe here as I would at Wesley’s house. The storm’s not going to hit. It’s going to go around, the way all the others did.”
Wesley, 48, considered forcing his father into the car. “ Itwas such a nerve- racking situation,” he says. “ But I had never angered him to that point or tried to make him do something he didn’twant to do, so I wasn’t about to do it at that age.”
Looking back on th at conversation, Lillian chokes up. “ All of a sudden he got real stubborn,” she says. “ If he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. And if he tells you he’s not going to do it, he’s not going to do it. And you might as well just leave him alone, because he’s not going to do it.”
She told her neighbors across the street that Edgar was staying behind, but she made few other preparations. She didn’t put her pictures in high places. She didn’t take any valuables with her. She packed one change of clothing and assumed she’d be back in a day or two. She gave her husband a kiss and left.
At that moment, the Hollingsworths joined a group that eventually numbered in the tens of thousands: families divided by Katrina.
A Katrina odyssey
The next day, the storm came and the waters rose. Wesley, his moth er a nd h is g irlfriend stayed dry in Wesley’s second- D oor apartment, even as water lapped at the rooD ines of single-story houses across the street. But they didn’t feel safe. “ We were just lucky for the time being. Butwe didn’t know when our luck was going to run out,” Wesley says.
From the moment the storm ended, they started trying to make contact with Edgar. But they couldn’t get back to the house, and “ the phones were all out,” Lillian recalls tearfully. “ Itwas horrible.”
So they waited, Wesley says, and they wondered: “ What was he doing? Whatwas he thinking? Was he all right?”
The food and water at Wesley’s apartment ran out Wednesday. Rescuers came by in boats and said they’d return, but they never did.
On Thursday, a neighbor D oated by on a D atboat and said he’d be back for them. He kept his promise.
“ I told him he was my angel,” Lillian says.
“ He sure was,” says Wesley. reallywish I knew his name.”
Late Thursday afternoon, they arrived at a staging area at Interstate 10 and Causeway Boulevard. They expected to - nd buses ready to take them to shelter. Instead, they found thousands of people and no buses.
The Hollingsworths waited all night and through most of the next day in the heat and chaos. A few buses would arrive every few hours. National Guard soldiers tried to coordinate boarding, but the crowds were too desperate. “ Everybody had one thing in mind — getting out of there and getting on the bus,” Wesley says.
On Friday afternoon, they - nally boarded a bus so crowded that Lillian had to sit on the D oor until a young woman offered her seat. Th ey d id n ot k now wh ere t h ey were headed. “ I just really didn’t care,” Lillian says. “ I was very confused. I just had given up. I had stayed out for so long in the hot sun, and ( I was) hungry. I justwanted to sit down. I just wanted to get where itwas cool.”
The bus took them 120 miles to Morganza, northwest of Baton Rouge, only to - nd the shelter there full. But along the way, Lillian had seen a highway sign for New Roads — home of her nephew. Shelter workers in Morganza gave them food, and a young woman drove them the 10 miles to New Roads.
“ I just couldn’t go any farth er,” Lillian says.
A belated rescue
When they reached a phone in New Roads, the Hollingsworths called the Red Cross to try to locate Edgar. They called an emergency number announced on a radio station. They called a number crawling along the TV screen. But they didn’t hear back from anyone.
The Broadmoor area, meanwhile, was sitting in more than 6 feet of water. Boats went by, but searchers couldn’t go door to door until the neighborhood was pumped out nearly two weeks after the storm.
“ It was terrible,” Lillian says of the waiting. “ Sometimes I would think the worst. And then some days I would think the best. I was praying that somebody had rescued him.”
When search-and- rescue teams - nally went in, they were told to knock on doors, listen for a response, help those who needed it, call for body removal if necessary. They were told not to force entry.
On Tuesday, Sept. 13, Capt. Bruce Gaffney led a National Guard unit from S an D iego t h rough t h e Hollingsworths’ neighborhood. It reeked of mold and sewage.
Gaffney, 48, says markings on their door, including an “ X” and a zero, showed a team had checked the house and concluded no one was inside. Another mark — “ SPCA” — showed the house had been checked for animals, he says.
That made his team the third “ set of eyes” on the house.
The wrought- iron security gate at the front door was locked, but the door was cracked open a few inches. Sgt. Jeremy Ridgeway spotted part of a leg and called to Lt. Frederick Fell, the platoon leader.
The person appeared dead, but Fell wasn’t sure. The leg, he told his colleagues, looked “ a little D eshy.” Despite the order not to breach homes, he says, “I didn’t think twice about going inside. It was what needed to be done.”
Spc. Alfredo Ramos, a 6- foot, 300-pound former Navy medic, wrenched the security gate open. Then Ridgeway, Ramos and Spc. Eric Brady made their way through the wreckage and 2 feet of standing water in the house.
There was no food or drinking water in sight. The living room couch was tipped over, its back D at on the D oor.
Edgar Hollingsworth, almost skeletal, lay unclothed on that upended couch, a coffee table resting against his head, his elbow pressed against his rib cage. The guardsmen called to Fell that authorities needed to pick up a body. Thirty seconds elapsed, and then Hollingsworth gasped for air.
The three men leapt backward. “ We had never been so scared,” says Ramos, 22. “ It was like something out of a movie.”
Suddenly the tempo was frenzied. A soldier raced more than two blocks to a supply truck to get a medical kit. Gaffney rushed to the scene from a block away. So did California Task Force 5, an Orange County urban search-and- rescue unit working nearby.
They found Hollingsworth lying on a stretcher on the street.
“ You could see his heart beating through his chest, he was so emaciated,” says Peter Czuleger, 55, an emergency room doctor with the Orange County team. “ One of the guardsman said, ‘ He looks like he has AIDS.’ I said, no, this is what someone l ooks l ike w h o h as n ot had food orwater for 10 days.”
Hollingsworth was unresponsive and had two pressure wounds — on his head from the coffee table and on his rib cage from his elbow. The wounds indicated that he had been in exactly the same position for at least three days.
“ I thought he would not have made it another 24 hours in that house,” Czuleger says. “ He would surely have died that evening.”
Czuleger started an IV in a shrunken vein under Hollingsworth’s collarbone. Aided by task force members, Ramos lifted him into an ambulance, and he was taken to Ochsner Clinic, one of the few local hospitals still operating.
Nobody knew who he was. But Gaffney and Fell went back to the house later. They found Edgar’s name on the back of a picture on the wall, and Lillian’s name on some mail.
An iconic photo
The day after the rescue, Lillian and Wesley Hollingsworth heard from a relative in Baker. Buy the newspaper, she told them.
Lillian stared in shock at the picture of her husband on the front page of The ( Baton Rouge) Advocate. They called the newspaper and got the California photographer’s name and phone number. He told them where Edgar had been taken.
By that night they were on the phone with the doctor at the hospital. Edgar was unconscious and on life support, the doctor said, and he would keep him alive until they arrived. They rented a car the next day, drove the 120 miles to New Orleans and sat with him for 20 minutes before he died.
The family was devastated but grateful. “ I was able to see him again without ( him) being in a casket,” Lillian says.
Edgar Hollingsworth had spent three years in the Army, stateside and in Germany. When his National Guard rescuers learned he was a veteran, they arranged for a memorial fund and a military funeral. Ramos, Brady and Ridgeway were pallbearers. The military presence comforted Lillian Hollingsworth.
“ He was proud to have been a soldier,” she says of her husband. “ He always talked about the Army. I just feel that it worked out the way he would have wanted it to.”
Later, Lillian would say she wished the city had forcibly removed people from their homes after the storm.
Later, Richard Ventura, logistics manager of California Task Force 5, would talk about the frustration and waste of searching a huge urban area without going into houses — and then having to search again, and again, to - nd those left behind. “ We want to do the right job the - rst time,” he says.
Later, Bruce Gaffney would speculate about Edgar’s solitary last days, the terror of not knowing “ where the water’s going to stop” or when the rescuers would come. He would say the photograph sums up the larger tragedy of Katrina.
“Everyone failed the people,” Gaffney says. “ The soldiers and the poor people had to bear the brunt of everybody else’s failures.”
The photograph carried different meanings for others. Ventura looked at it and saw racial harmony: a black man cared for by a Hispanic man assisted by two whites. Fell saw the Katrina relief response in microcosm: paramedics, guardsmen, devastation and a casualty.
Ramos himself, at the center of the photograph with an intense expression on his face, - xed on the 15-day gap between the storm and the rescue. The picture, he says, “ shows the will to survive. I know he didn’twant to die there.”
An uncertain future
Lillian Hollingsworth is living at the Bon Carre apartments in Baton Rouge with her son month to month, on a $500 lease. Relatives loaned them money to buy clothes for Edgar’s funeral. Money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has gone for furniture and rent.
The pair has made several brief visits to her house in New Orleans. They snapped pictures: everything wet, moldy, broken and topsy- turvy.
“ It looked like a tornado was inside of the house,” Wesley says.
Wesley’s girlfriend has returned to New Orleans and her job as a security guard. He was a city bus driver with only eight years until retirement. He is still waiting for news of his job.
His mother iswaiting for doesn’t knowwhat.
“ I had had some D ood insurance. But that’s not enough to tear down and rebuild another house,” she says. “ I’m too old to get in debt. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
Ultimately, Wesley’s fate will decide hers.
“ Sometimes I say I want to go back, and sometimes I don’t,” she says. “ But if my son goes back, well, I’m getting on in years, and I would like to be close by him so I have somebody to look after me.”
Lillian Hollingsworth has a cousin in Baton Rouge, but she doesn’t knowwhere he lives.
There’s nowhere to walk near her apartment, in a desolate part of town. She yearns for her grandsons. They’ve lived next door to her all their lives. Now they are in Dallas, where a bus took them after the storm.
“ Every day I talk to t hem,” she says. “ They’ve adjusted to Dallas, but they like New Orleans. They want to come back.”
Her family pictures — her husband in better days, the baby pictures and school pictures of her son and his sons — are stained with water and mud.
But she does have one undamaged photograph of her grandchildren, from Wesley’s apartment. It’s on her windowsill here, along with four small houseplants. . . . she
Widowed: Lillian Hollingsworth now lives in a sparse apartment in Baton Rouge. Hollingsworth F ed her home in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached. Her husband, Edgar, stayed behind.
Dramatic rescue: This photo of Edgar Hollingsworth ran Sept. 14 in USA TODAY.
Not much left: Wesley Hollingsworth, who was driven to his parents’ New Orleans home by a photographer working for USA TODAY, retrieves a few belongings.
Grandfather: Edgar Hollingsworth holds his eldest grandchild, Wesley Jr., in a photo taken about 20 years ago thatwas found, stained and damaged, in his home. Edgarwas rescued Sept. 13 and died two days later.