NEW ORLEANS — Memorial Medical Center had always been a haven. A high, imposing building with red brick walls that rose from the center of the city, it had sheltered patients, staffers and their families during previous hurricanes and seemed like a good place to weather Hurricane Katrina as well.
Doctors, nurses and other employees started bringing their children to the medical center on the Saturday before the storm. They stocked supplies of food and water.
But when the levees broke, floodwaters turned the hospital into an island.
By the time help reached the estimated 2,000 people inside the hulking Tenet Healthcare Corp. facility six days after they took refuge, 45 people were dead. Their bodies were not discovered until Sunday.
Two hospital employees on Monday described staffers' struggle to comfort dying patients after the electricity went out, the taps went dry, temperatures rose past 100 degrees and the city erupted into a frenzy of looting and chaos.
"I can tell you it was 106 degrees in that hospital" in the days after the storm, said David Goodson, director of support services.
Joanne Lalla, an oncology nurse, said she "couldn't understand why nobody was coming to help us" as the days wore on.
They said their hopes rose when they heard helicopters approaching, but fell again when they didn't airlift the patients.
Instead, crews dropped off supplies and more evacuees who had been plucked off their rooftops in nearby neighborhoods. Lalla said at least one patient was brought to the hospital with a stab wound.
Other hospital workers heard shooting and glass breaking in the city below; looters ravaged cars in the hospital garage.
Goodson said about 16 of the dead were patients at LifeCare, a critical care and convalescent center that operates within the hospital. According to LifeCare Holdings Inc.'s website, three LifeCare centers were evacuated in the New Orleans area because of the flood.
At one point, Goodson said, National Guard troops came to the hospital, evacuated some patients and promised to come back for more -- but then the floodwaters rose. They didn't return until the Friday after the storm.
"By Tuesday night, we were leery and worried," Lalla said. "I knew we definitely were going to have to get out of that hospital. We were all hot and sweaty because the next thing to go was the generator."
Goodson estimated that about 500 of those inside the hospital were staff members.
"On Wednesday, I went to the bathroom and realized that we had no water, so we had to make sure that no patient flushed the toilet," Lalla said. "The patients were very hot, so we kept all the doors open."
Lalla suspected that many patients in the critical care unit who needed ventilators and other electronic equipment were among the dead.
"We were just in survival mode," she said. "We couldn't give out medication because we couldn't regulate their medications.
"We were like MASH units. All the patients were on little cots and mattresses on the garage floor."
Lalla recalled how a dietary specialist ripped his shirt into rags, dipped them in water and stroked the head of one patient as he lay dying. Others gave patients food.
She said she knew of three cancer patients who died during their wait at the hospital, including one under her direct care.
"The family was there too," she said. "I felt for them. I thought it must have been hard to have a loved one die and then to have to stay in the hospital."
When the morgue was full, Lalla said, "unfortunately we had to pile the patients who passed away in the chapel. We slept in the hall outside the chapel. It was a strong smell."
Goodson and Lalla said that on Tuesday, the day after the hurricane, hospital personnel tried to evacuate as many people as possible -- starting with those who could walk on their own, then those in wheelchairs and finally bedridden patients.
They said that without elevators, the sickest patients were the most difficult to move.
Some private citizens in boats came and promised they would bring many more the next day, the hospital officials said. But when they returned Wednesday, there were only four boats. They made trips ferrying as many people as they could, all day long and into Thursday, Goodson said.
Among the patients able to evacuate on the boats were two young patients who had undergone bone marrow transplants.
"I saw them get in ... and saw all these women with newborn babies who were also getting on, and I just burst into tears," Lalla said.
By that time, Lalla said, the staff was exhausted and the hospital was filthy; the floodwaters had grown dark and pungent.
"It was the smell of sewage and death," Lalla said.
Goodson said he saw two bodies floating in the water outside the hospital.
On Friday, soldiers arrived and carried those still inside the medical center to Causeway Boulevard.
"I thought they were going to bring us to buses, but we had just been dropped off at another evacuation site," Lalla said.