ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. — There were flowerboxes on the railings and patios for patients to sit out in the bayou air. The rooms were clean and bright. Residents seemed well cared for by a staff that organized bingo games, showed movies on a big-screen TV and held Mass every Friday.
Such charms persuaded Steve Gallodoro and his siblings to entrust their increasingly feeble 82-year-old father to the care of St. Rita's Nursing Home in November. Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Gallodoro, a parish firefighter, was back at the familiar brick building -- this time among the first rescue workers to arrive at the flooded nursing home.
Gallodoro, 55, plunged into the water and forced his way through a window after seeing a body. In water 4 feet deep, he tried to make his way down a hallway toward his father's room.
He encountered another body. Then a third. And stopped.
"I was not prepared to go any further," he said. "I knew what I was going to find."
St. Rita's was supposed to be a place where patients could live out their final years in comfort and peace. Instead, it had become a scene of horror -- elderly and disabled patients abandoned in floodwaters that rose nearly to the ceilings.
In a city where hundreds of people recently lost their lives and thousands lost their homes, the tragedy at St. Rita's seems particularly incomprehensible and acute.
Few locations across the New Orleans region have accounted for more deaths. And although officials who finally recovered the bodies last week said they hoped it would help families find some closure, the reality is that the questions surrounding St. Rita's will haunt relatives and fuel investigations for years:
Why didn't the home's operators, Salvador A. and Mable B. Mangano, evacuate the facility before the storm arrived, as did every other nursing home in the area? When they made a last-ditch effort to move patients as the hurricane hit, why did they take some and not others? How did they decide which patients to take?
On Tuesday, the Louisiana attorney general announced the arrests of the Manganos, who were charged with 34 counts of negligent homicide after surrendering to Medicaid fraud investigators in Baton Rouge. The couple were booked into prison in Baton Rouge and released.
"We've got 34 people drowned in a nursing home that should have been evacuated," said Charles C. Foti Jr., state attorney general. "They were asked if they wanted to be evacuated. They refused. They had a contract to move. They did not." The operators' actions, he said, "resulted in the deaths of their patients."
A lawyer for the couple said in an interview last week that accounts that blamed the owners for the deaths were "grossly in error."
"At the end of the day, what my folks did to try to rescue these folks was nothing short of 100% heroic," said attorney James Cobb. "The idea that the owners abandoned these folks is absolutely not true."
Robert N. Habans Jr., another defense lawyer, said the Manganos were never informed that the evacuation order was mandatory. He said evacuation was complicated by patients needing oxygen and feeding tubes.
"When all the facts are out, any fair-minded person will conclude they are caring nursing home operators," Habans said.
St. Rita's is several miles beyond the most populated part of the parish. It is a tin-roofed brick structure with two wings branching off the main entrance.
Local residents said its grounds were always well-maintained -- the grass was mowed and the walkways were swept.
The home had occasional troubles. Earlier this year, a 19-year-old nursing assistant was arrested on felony warrants and accused of striking a mute, mentally disabled resident as many as 18 times with a clothes hanger.
But overall, St. Rita's reputation was good, and government records show that it was among the better nursing homes in the region.
A government database on nursing homes showed that inspectors found fewer problems at St. Rita's than at others -- recording six "deficiencies" at the facility, compared with an average of 10 for other Louisiana nursing homes.
The shortcomings arose in such areas as reviewing the work of nursing aides and maintaining a program to prevent the spread of infection, the database showed. But the deficiencies were all rated 2 on a 4-point scale, meaning they cause "minimal harm or potential for actual harm."
Like every nursing home in this part of Louisiana, St. Rita's was required to submit an updated evacuation plan every year. Larry J. Ingargiola, the director of the St. Bernard Parish office of emergency preparedness, said he approved St. Rita's plan this year, and that it would have worked if the Manganos had followed it.
"Their plan was to be out 72 to 48 hours" before a hurricane was scheduled to hit, he said, adding that the plan required the home to make advance arrangements for ambulance and bus service to transport patients to designated evacuation sites.