NEW ORLEANS — Even in the desperate days after Hurricane Katrina, the news flash seemed particularly sensational: Police had caught eight snipers on a bridge shooting at relief contractors. In the gun battle that followed, officers shot to death five or six of the marauders.
Exhausted and emotionally drained police cheered the news that their comrades had stopped the snipers and suffered no losses, said an account in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. One officer said the incident showed the department's resolve to take back the streets.
But nearly three months later -- and after repeated revisions of the official account of the incident and a lowering of the death toll to two -- authorities said they were still trying to reconstruct what happened Sept. 4 on the Danziger Bridge. And on the city's east side, where the shootings occurred, two families that suffered casualties are preparing to come forward with stories radically different from those told by police.
A teenager critically wounded that day, speaking about the incident for the first time, said in an interview that police shot him for no reason, delivering a final bullet at point-blank range with what he thought was an assault rifle. Members of another family said one of those killed was mentally disabled, a childlike innocent who made a rare foray from home in a desperate effort to find relief from the flood.
The two families -- one from New Orleans East and solidly middle class, the other poorer and rooted in the Lower 9th Ward -- have offered only preliminary information about what they say happened that day. Large gaps remain in the police and civilian accounts of the incident.
News of the Danziger Bridge shootings roared across cable television for a time. But as with many overblown reports of crime and violence immediately after the hurricane, the facts remain elusive.
The final findings seem likely to become a provocative centerpiece in assessments of the New Orleans Police Department's performance in the hurly-burly days after Katrina.
Many officers remained at their posts during and after the storm. Despite losing their patrol cars and running out of ammunition, they improvised to keep assisting in relief efforts. But others abetted the lawlessness -- abandoning their posts or joining in the looting.
As in all officer-involved shootings in New Orleans, the Police Department has undertaken a review and is expected to turn its findings over to the district attorney's office in the next few weeks. Police Department spokesman Marlon Defillo said it was not unusual that the suspects had given a divergent view of the shootings. But he said homicide investigators would take all accounts seriously, a position reiterated by the office of Dist. Atty. Eddie Jordan.
"We are looking at everyone's involvement," said Leatrice Dupre, the district attorney's spokeswoman. She said the investigation "may find that the police were unjust in this shooting. Or it may not. We just don't know."
Today, a late-autumn chill has descended on New Orleans, signaling the end of hurricane season, at last. The Danziger Bridge stands mostly quiet, with an occasional car or truck crossing to and from New Orleans East neighborhoods left in ruins.
On Sept. 4, it was different. The half-mile-long span delivers the Chef Menteur Highway over the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and into the city's east side. As a high and dry ridge in the middle of inundated neighborhoods, the highway became a magnet for evacuees.
A small dose of order had emerged in parts of New Orleans on that Sunday morning, with the National Guard deployed in force and evacuations underway at the teeming Superdome and Convention Center. But before 9 a.m., the police reported snipers shooting from the bridge. Initial accounts given to the media by Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley had the targets as 14 civilian contractors, part of a convoy that drove to the area to help with storm repairs.
But in a measure of the confusion and poor communication that prevailed, another police official gave a different account.
"Five men who were looting exchanged gunfire with police. The officers engaged the looters when they were fired upon," killing four, said Steven Nichols, the police official, according to the Reuters news agency.
In the following weeks, the official account would be modified again. It turned out, police said, that only two of the suspects had been killed.
Although not disclosed by police, one of the dead was the mentally retarded man, 40-year-old Ronald Madison, family and friends said. The other was a 19-year-old man. Four others were injured: Leonard Bartholomew, 44; his wife, Susan, 39; their daughter, Leisha, 17; and their nephew, Jose Holmes Jr., 19.