(Editor's note: This story is based on an extensive interview with Doug Thornton, one of a handful of people inside the New Orleans Superdome from the hours before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the Gulf Coast in the final week of August 2005 until the dome was completely evacuated of its tens of thousands of temporary inhabitants days later. Thornton was literally the last Superdome employee to evacuate. Other media sources were also used to compile this story, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune.)
There are many heroes from when the storm hit. The survivors, the rescue workers, the military men and women and many others you already know.
There is one hero who is not a household name, a regular guy, a man who kept the dome running under extraordinary circumstances, doing so when others, even some police officers, scurried away in fear, a man who on Aug. 27, 2005, a Saturday, glared at a dire weather report.
|Thornton: 'You had no idea it was going to be such hell.' (Getty Images)|
It was seven days of hell, to be exact.
He saw almost everything: the violence, the suffering, the desperation. But he also witnessed -- and was a key part of -- moments of great ingenuity and the saving of human lives.
It all started with a storm brewing in the Gulf Coast.
Thornton was in Shreveport doing business for his employer, SMG-Facility Management, where he is a regional vice president. As the hours went by and the storm had reached hurricane status, even climbing to Category 3 strength as it bore down on the Louisiana/Mississippi state lines, Thornton knew it was time to leave and drive back to New Orleans.
Thornton calmly made the trip. He did not take hurricanes lightly but he also did not cower in their shadow. There was no indication this storm would do anything other than the usual, which is rearrange treetops and roofs and alter tributaries. No one knew it would alter history.
By the time Thornton arrived in New Orleans, the storm had already been given a name: Katrina. Thornton first made his way home, took some time to board up the house and lock it down, and headed for the Superdome.
If Thornton was a hurricane survivor, so, too, was the Superdome. Twice before it had been used as a storm shelter. Indeed, emergency and civil planners refer to the Superdome this way: a refuge of last resort.
By late Saturday night, and into early Sunday morning, the stadium staff and their families, led by Thornton, began to pile into the dome. Despite the fact a deadly storm was creeping toward the city, the dome had to be staffed and secured. Thornton basically took up residence in his office, a space inside the stadium.
A steady movement of Superdome workers and their families began to stream into the building. Initially, there were 10 to 12 armed security personnel, eight dome engineers and 22-24 part- and full-time employees for a total of some 40 SMG workers. Their families were three times that amount.
There were also several hundred people from the stadium concession company, Centerplate. In all, before the levees ruptured, there were just 400 people inside the facility.
Though most of the people in the building were slightly unnerved, there was still a sense of calm. Despite hundreds of people being inside, it was practically silent. The sound of conversation and shuffling were the only noises of substance.
Many people slept that night. Thornton did not. The forecast kept getting nastier, and he was getting increasingly concerned. He started to plan for the worst.
Unaware of Katrina's true tenacity and overconfident in the dome's ability to withstand the effects of what was fast becoming a catastrophic hurricane, state and city officials sent New Orleans residents who had not heeded orders for a mandatory evacuation, because they were unable or unwilling, to the Superdome. It was perhaps the biggest mistake of many made by city and federal officials during the Katrina crisis.
|Hurricane Katrina developed into a Category 5 storm. (From NASA)|
Thornton was concerned about what he was seeing. At noon that Sunday, Thornton and his staff, along with the military, opened up the dome to the population. He peeked outside and witnessed people already lined up around the building waiting to get in.
Thornton's apprehension turned into serious dread. He knew the combination of an increasingly powerful hurricane with growing crowds moving into the Superdome was potentially big trouble.
Civil authorities used the dome as a refuge of last resort or basically as an emergency shelter. But Thornton knew that though the theory was sound, it was also untested. During Hurricane Georges in 1998, the dome was used as a shelter but it never lost electric power or water pressure, the building equivalents of a circulation system. But Georges would be proved tame compared to Katrina.
"No one had ever truly tested the 'refuge of last resort' theory," says Thornton now. "There was a false sense of security by emergency planners that everything would be OK. But we knew what was going to happen. We knew the generators would fail. We knew the water pressure would fail. We knew it would get hot. We knew the people inside would get rowdy. We knew it could get very, very ugly."
Thornton's conversations with military officers continued in earnest. The team needed a central location, so Thornton turned a cramped and awkward boiler room into a makeshift headquarters.
Thornton decided they would deal with the situation in three phases:
- Getting the now thousands of people into the dome safely;
- Feeding them;
- Getting everyone out as safely as they got them in.
Police, military and dome officials began to spread out across the building, monitoring and assisting the people inside. Nighttime came, and Thornton grabbed a bullhorn to speak to the crowd and update them about what was happening. Many of the people and families were on the turf football field, just sitting and waiting, some praying, and Thornton stood directly at the 50-yard line. "We're doing the best we can to make you comfortable," he told them in part. "Please be patient with us."
By 9 p.m., there were already 12,000 people inside the Superdome.
Early that morning was one of the few times Thornton slept, on a small cot in his office behind a phalanx of security personnel, but it was a restless sleep. He popped awake at 5:30 in the morning, just in time for his 6 a.m. meeting with Guard officers and other soldiers. As the crisis continued, these meetings would increase to twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
Before that morning briefing, Thornton glanced outside his office window. He saw a brutal wind literally pushing some tall trees sideways, almost parallel to the ground. He turned to his wife and said: "Honey, this ain't no Hurricane Georges. We're in trouble."
|Repair crews fix the roof's hole formed during the hurricane. (AP)|
Thornton then flipped on the news and the weather radar showed a haze of red. The eye of the massive storm was nearing the dome.
He marched into his morning meeting with the Army. National Guardsmen, numbering in the hundreds, had been performing dutiful security checks of people entering the dome. They also combined with police and SMG security personnel to patrol the building 24 hours a day.
The meeting went on, and 15 minutes into it, the lights flickered. Suddenly, the power was out.
It was Thornton's worst nightmare coming to fruition. The Superdome's emergency power system kicked in but was inadequate to illuminate the entire building. The system barely lit the hallways and makeshift living areas. The dome was now uncomfortably darker. Still lit, but darker.
The problems quickly worsened. Not long after the power outage there was a loud, booming sound. One of the stadium workers rushed into the room where Thornton was meeting with the Army. "You had better come see this," he said to Thornton.
Thornton rushed out to the field. Light was shining through a portion of the roof because a 50-foot chunk of it was missing. It was only a matter of time before Katrina's 100-mph winds began to beat up the stadium. In fact, slowly but steadily, sheets of the two-inch thick foam and rubber membrane were separating from the roof and blowing across portions of the local business district. Smoke dampers were ripped off. In all, the roof was littered with some half-dozen holes.
Without the foam and rubber membrane, the integrity of the roof was easily breached. Eventually, 75 percent of that rubbery security blanket would be torn away.
A lightning rod normally planted on the roof came crashing through the inside of the dome and halted its flight at the 10-yard line.
The military, Thornton and other civilian leaders hurriedly moved the tens of thousands of people from their encampments on the west side of the stadium, near the larger hole in the roof, away from the danger and the rain showering into the dome. Once the eye of the storm passed, and the wind shifted, the people were moved again.
Hurricane force winds pummeled the dome for most of that Monday, all the way until late in the afternoon. By the evening, the dome was, for all intents and purposes, completely destroyed. Even at that early point in the disaster. It was a remarkable transformation for one of the most distinguished and recognizable buildings in America; presidents, Super Bowl winners, national championship college football teams and even Frank Sinatra had graced its concrete bowels.
Now, it was a disaster area. Water had rolled through almost every crevice, destroying the carpets. The large scoreboard was obliterated. "Imagine your home, your house," Thornton says, "and 60 to 70 percent of your roof blows off. Everything in the house would get wet. That's a 3,000-square-foot home. We've got two million square feet in the dome. The building was torn to shreds."
Thornton was now getting his news from an 800 megahertz radio. There were rumors and reports of murders and dead bodies across the city. He was told to expect 3,000 dead bodies at the dome. Empty refrigerated 18-wheel trucks pulled into nearby parking areas waiting to be crammed with bodies.
That evening commanders from the Louisiana National Guard, their own headquarters destroyed by Katrina, entered the dome.
There were pools of water inside but the emergency generator was still humming. There were now 15,000 people inside.
Thornton did not sleep much that night. At 5:45 a.m., he was up when one of the Army officers told him to look outside. Thornton did and saw that the water had risen to an astounding six feet on Poydras Street just near the dome. The effect? The dome was practically isolated. The storm had turned the Superdome into a giant, metal island, cut off from the rest of the city.
A shot of panic sparked through Thornton's body. He ran to the engineering room, the location of the generator that was still pumping electricity through the dome, and spotted two inches of water on the floor. "Oh my God," he said.
|Parts of New Orleans were six feet under water following Katrina. (AP)|
It stood on a platform 18 inches off the ground and was definitely in danger from the rising water. Thornton stood there for a second. "We need sandbags."
Thornton's plan was to build a moat around the generator, a dam composed of hundreds of sandbags. At 10 a.m. that Tuesday morning, the sandbags arrived via Blackhawk helicopters. The dam, which included a rudimentary pumping system, was constructed by a number of Guardsmen and New Orleans Police cadets. It worked. The generator was saved.
One problem solved, another was created by the runaway water. The underground fuel tanks contained 1,000 gallons of diesel. They were located on nearby Girod Street, which was already under two feet of water. The water made it impossible to get to those tanks for refueling.
At that point, there was anywhere from five to seven hours of fuel left. The generator would whir to a stop sometime around noon if something was not done.
Thornton and the military, many of whom were part of an engineering regiment, constructed a clever bypass system by feeding a line directly from the generator to a nearby 200,000-gallon fuel truck. The generator never ran out of fuel.
There is a great significance of that uninterrupted power supply. A number of special-needs patients, located on the upper 200 levels of the dome, required electric power to run their dialysis machines and refrigerate insulin. If the generator had failed, those people might have easily died.
As the hours passed, everyone was still holding on, barely, thinking that they would be leaving soon. The thought was this terrible time would end and they would depart the dome and return to what was left of their homes. Then Thornton received news that would end those thoughts.
It was delivered by Mayor Ray Nagin. Thornton and others met with Nagin in the SMG offices. Nagin delivered a blunt assessment: The levees cannot be fixed, the mayor explained. "'You have to stay here another five or six days.'"
"Mr. Mayor," Thornton said, "this building will be gone by then."
It did not matter what Thornton said. There was no choice in the matter. They would have to stay.
As if what the mayor stated was not enough of a shock, Eddie Compass, the chief of police, had an equally dire warning. Compass had come to the dome armed with a baseball bat. "Get out," he told the group.
"'I love you guys,'" Compass continued. "'I don't want you to get hurt. But we're going to get eight more feet of water.'" Millions of gallons of it were emptying into the city from Lake Pontchartrain.
"'I'm pulling my men out of here,'" Compass said, "'and you should pull your families out.'"
With that, Compass stood up, gave Thornton a hug, and walked out of the room.
Thornton was furious, but he didn't have time to be angry. The Guardsman in charge of security, Lt. Col. Tom Beron, asked Thornton what needed to be protected or secured and Thornton quickly ticked off a number of things. Some of them included a security room that held dozens of weapons, a vault in the dome that had $150,000 in cash stored inside and the commissary, which held knives and forks that could be used as weapons.
Some military officers were not convinced the water would rise so high. Instead of wanting to abandon the dome completely, they encouraged caution. An around-the-clock watch on the water level in the generator room was ordered. Concerned a vastly outnumbered Guard force could be overrun by crowds and have its weapons stolen, commanders ordered soldiers to pull back to safer positions, just in case Compass was correct. But they did not completely leave.
Thornton and others then just waited, wondering what would happen next. By late that night there were 25,000 to 30,000 people in the dome.
It was a strange day.
Thornton had been told that FEMA-controlled buses were en route, but they did not come. What did arrive were rescue boats, military vehicles and helicopters. But they were not moving people out, they were emergency workers bringing people in. The consistent drone of the latter's engines was a constant sound as they landed at a heliport just over the northwest garage.
Inside, food and bottled water were becoming scarcer. Outside, it was 95 degrees that day. The dome, without air conditioning, was a steaming 90 degrees.
"You can imagine what it smelled like," Thornton says.
Tempers were growing short. Two fires temporarily burned, set by angry dome inhabitants. They were put out quickly by dome officials.
There is a massive bridge connecting the Superdome and a nearby shopping mall, and on this day, thousands of people who had been packed inside the dome slowly walked to this area after being told that buses were coming to deliver them from the Superdome hell.
|Buses like these ushered refugees away from the Superdome. (AP)|
The people waited for hours. By 9 that morning, no buses. The crowd grew extremely angry, and Thornton grew extremely agitated. By now, there were approximately 1,500 soldiers, New Orleans police officers and various security men controlling 25,000 people.
Thornton watched as members of the Guard went into an escalated state of security. Non-essential military personnel were called out of the dome, and for the first time, barbed-wire fences were constructed in parts of the plaza areas to prevent the front and back main gates from being overrun.
The buses did come. They came late and sporadically. But they did come and people began to finally leave the dome over a 48-hour time period. The Times-Picayune reported that 828 buses made their way to and from the dome. At 50 people per bus, that was 41,400 people taken from the area.
SMG employees had started to leave early Wednesday morning via chartered helicopters. Thornton's family got out safely. By 8 that morning, only eight SMG employees remained. The director of SMG's security, Ben Vanderklis, and Thornton were two of them. Vanderklis insisted that Thornton leave with him ,but Thornton insisted even more that he stay and make sure everyone got out.
"Here, take this," Vanderklis said. He handed Thornton a handgun for protection.
Thornton stayed to make sure every living soul remaining inside was evacuated unharmed. It was if the Superdome were a naval vessel and Thornton its captain.
As thoroughly heroic as Thornton was for these agonizing seven days, he would do something, just before leaving, that would stay with him until now. As he headed for the helicopter, a man grabbed his shoulder. It was not someone attacking him; it was a man pleading for help. He told Thornton that his wife was having a heart attack. Thornton grabbed his radio and yelled into it for medical assistance.
The battery on his radio had died some time ago.
He was working on almost no sleep and the stress was overwhelming. He had no medical background. There was nothing he could do for the man.
Shortly before noon, Thornton finally departed. He was the last SMG employee to leave.
After a 45-minute trip by helicopter, he joined his wife in a nearby Louisiana town. He sat down, then lay down, and then passed out, dead tired. Even heroes need their rest.
By the end of the treacherous ordeal, the smells inside the dome were unfathomable. The running water and plumbing had long failed so people did what they had to do. They went to the bathroom in corners or used small brown bags that once contained military Meals Ready to Eat as makeshift toilets.
Inside the dome, everything was junked. The turf, where football players used to roam, was a sea of black water an inch deep. Excrement flowed from the bathrooms onto the concourse. Some of the walls were bloodstained. Thornton said the dome had become a biohazard.
|Crews were forced to strip the turf inside the Superdome during the rebuild. (AP)|
"There were some rough people in there, no doubt," said Thornton. "But there was also a lot of media embellishment as well. But I have to say there were fights and skirmishes and people stealing food, blankets and medication. They were struggling to survive."
There was also remarkable restraint among the many people inside the dome. Rumors of numerous gang rapes and murders were later proved to be untrue. There were also a number of dome inhabitants who worked with the military to keep the peace.
"I think 99 percent of (the media claims were) bullshit," Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who was inside the dome for much of the crisis, told the Times-Picayune. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. Ninety-nine percent of the people in the dome were very well-behaved."
Military and civilian officials said there were six deaths inside the dome: four from natural causes, one from a drug overdose and one man jumped to his death from the upper decks of the dome in what was declared an apparent suicide.
There was only one shot fired inside. A Guardsman from the 527th Engineering Battalion accidentally shot himself in the leg, with his own weapon, after confronting a man who had attacked him in a darkened locker room while both were wading through six inches of water.
What helped the situation not become even more disastrous was the prediction that the water would increase eight feet did not happen. It rose just two inches.
The Friday after his first night of decent sleep in many days, Thornton drove to Baton Rouge for a meeting with the lieutenant governor. They needed Thornton's help for what was basically a post-evacuation briefing.
So Doug Thornton went back to work.
While gathering information about the status of the dome, Thornton turned on the television and saw officials from his own company, as well as others, saying the dome should be completely demolished. The momentum for that was growing wildly. People in New Orleans and around the country, who watched those horrific scenes of angry, sweltering and hungry Americans sitting outside the dome, initially saw the Superdome as a symbol of an ugly disaster and a government that failed its people.
Thornton had a radical idea. Sunday morning, he began speaking to various state and local leaders about the possibility of reconstructing the dome. "Most people probably thought I was crazy," Thornton remembers. "'Save that place? Why? Tear it down.'"
The way Thornton figured it, the Superdome had 30 years of pleasant memories before days of horrific ones.
Thornton gathered a team of consultants from many different fields of expertise, particularly companies that specialized in environmental disaster relief. They gathered at the Superdome and after putting on long rubber boots, jumpsuits and breathing masks, began examining it the way a medical examiner pours over the body of a cadaver.
Thornton and his teams found all kinds of notes and items left inside, such as organ donor cards, car keys, kitchen utensils, and personal photographs.
The Superdome had suffered anywhere from $50 million to $100 million in damages. It was far worse than when looters tore apart the building while taking shelter there from Georges.
A few weeks went by. So did another hurricane. in late September. Finally, Thornton and all of the consultants convened. It could indeed be done. The building could be refurbished.
The saving of the Superdome had begun.
Heroes and hope
Thornton is uncomfortable being described as a hero. Part of the reason is his knowledge that so many people, went through so much worse.
|Paul Tagliabue and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco tour the Superdome. (Getty Images)|
The Superdome, now a year later, is seen as a building of hope instead of a house of horrors. One reason is the speed and efficiency in which it has been redone. The first thing Thornton, who was heading the restoration project, did was add a temporary roof at a cost of $1.5 million. In early October, they added new sheetrock and got rid of much of the mold. By late November, Thornton met with the governor and presented his written recovery plan.
Thornton, always the skilled planner, wanted to basically restore the dome in three phases: refinance the debt (the state's bond was in the crapper), make the improvements and bring the NFL back as quickly as possible. The governor gave the executive order to fast track the process and soon Thornton was meeting in New Orleans with commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Thornton gave Tagliabue a tour of parts of the city and eventually the dome. Inside, they sat on the 50-yard line, on bare concrete, because the carpet had been ripped out.
"I think this will be ready to go late winter," Thornton told the commissioner.
Tagliabue left and a few days later Roger Goodell, then one of Tagliabue's top lieutenants who would replace Tagliabue as commissioner, phoned Thornton. "What do you think," Goodell asked, "about having the dome ready for an early September home opener?"
|Superdome staff ready the field for Monday night's game. (AP)|
Thornton did just that. It was not easy, though. The roof alone, which is 440,000 square feet, or 9.6 acres, was a distinct challenge. The roofing company that took the job was told it had 180 days to complete it or face a penalty of $10,000 a day. It was finished on July 19 after crews worked seven days a week and lost just four days to bad weather.
Rebuilding the dome in such a short period is unprecedented in American stadium history.
"The more I am around this project, the more I believe this building is an inspiration to the city of New Orleans," Thornton said. "I talk to people all over the city, cab drivers and other people, and they are always asking me about the dome. What we did is a testament to the willpower of the people in this city who put their lives on hold to do this."
Thornton was one of them. His own home had been inundated by seven feet of water because of Katrina and he did not move back in it until April, seven months after the storm.
It was just as well. All Thornton could think about was the Superdome, anyway. All he could think about was succeeding. He still is. He is still preparing for the big night, Monday night, by meeting with consultants and answering 250 e-mails a day.
"We did it," he says. Then he paused: "We had to do it. We couldn't fail."