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At Death's Door

Delia Holloway's body was found in her New Orleans home Sept. 2. And Sept. 13. And Nov. 2. Yet her daughter still cannot lay her to rest.

November 18, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

New Orleans — Losing her mother and aunt in the tumult of Hurricane Katrina has been tough for Deborah Holloway to accept. That her mother's body would end up having to be found three times before being recovered has felt intolerably cruel.

Holloway's mother, Delia, 82, and aunt Deborah Fisher, 85, did not leave before the hurricane because, like so many others, they were confident their house could withstand the storm.

Essentially, it did.

But when levees surrounding New Orleans broke after the Aug. 29 storm, the sisters were trapped by rising waters. They used lipstick to scrawl "help" on the upstairs windows. They hung a red scarf to attract attention. Relatives and friends called on their behalf. Help did arrive Sept. 2, but not before Delia Holloway had died. Fisher was rescued but died four days later.

Yet -- in a saga that underscores the separate disaster of how bodies were handled -- two months later, Holloway's remains were still in the upstairs bedroom of the home she shared with her sister. Now her body lies, officially unidentified, in the special morgue in St. Gabriel, La., for hurricane victims.

Holloway's daughter, a 52-year-old elementary school speech therapist in Southern California, is struggling to understand what happened to her mother and her aunt -- before their deaths and after.

*

Delia Holloway and Fisher lived in their childhood home, a classic two-story Victorian, white with green shutters, in the city's downtown business district. The home was stately, with a fireplace in every room and a stained-glass window in the dining room.

Holloway, a retired social worker, had high blood pressure. Fisher, a former librarian, was a colon cancer survivor. But the women, who had lived together the last 23 years, were "still chugging along," Deborah Holloway said.

On the morning Katrina hit, Fisher had called Frankie Walker, a longtime family friend in Baton Rouge, La.

"I'm just letting you know we're OK," Walker recalled Fisher saying. "We have food and supplies and the house seems to be OK." But, said Walker, Fisher also said: "I don't think we made the best decision this time."

When water started to engulf the downstairs of the house, the sisters took refuge in bedrooms upstairs.

Two thousand miles away, from her home in Claremont, Holloway's daughter tried to help.

She called the Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police and the Louisiana governor's office. She said she sent e-mails to Louisiana state senators and the Coast Guard, giving them her mother's home address, the cross street, the color of the building.

John Gaines, who considered the elderly women his sisters and is Deborah Holloway's godfather, had begged Delia Holloway and Fisher to leave New Orleans with him. "They were adamant they didn't want to go," said Gaines, 58.

As Gaines watched TV coverage of the hurricane from Houston, he heard a reporter mention that two elderly ladies had been trapped in a house on Cleveland Avenue in downtown New Orleans.

"I couldn't move. I knew it was them," Gaines said. Then the reporter named Deborah Fisher.

*

Word that rescuers had saved her aunt but had arrived after her mother died reached Deborah Holloway through a family friend.

"I don't know when my mother died," said Holloway, who is named after her aunt. "Who knows what they endured?"

Her aunt was taken to a hospital in San Antonio, and Holloway arrived at her bedside the afternoon of Sept. 6. That evening, the elderly woman's heart stopped. "I hadn't even processed my mother's death," said Holloway, an only child.

Holloway arranged for her aunt's body to be taken to Baton Rouge, where Fisher had lived for more than 40 years.

In Baton Rouge, forensics specialists from the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team took DNA samples from Deborah Holloway. She was told it was so that her mother's remains could be identified; she assumed that meant they believed they had her body in the morgue at St. Gabriel.

Holloway planned a memorial service for her aunt and mother on Sept. 17 -- although she did not have the body of either.

While still in Baton Rouge, Holloway called her home answering machine to check for messages.

There was a call from Steven Pacheco of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles. When Holloway returned his call, she was stunned.

"He told me that my mother's body had just been found in the house," Holloway recalled. "I just lost it."

Pacheco was a member of a California animal rescue team and came upon Holloway's body during a Sept. 13 search of her home.

The house was marked as containing a body, and the searchers assumed, as did Holloway, that this time the remains would be quickly collected.

When Holloway inquired about getting a death certificate, the funeral home told her the body had not been released.

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