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Katrina Survivor Grateful to Learn Rescuers' Names

'Thank you, you saved my life,' she tells the two newsmen who came to her aid in New Orleans.

January 09, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Nearly everyone who lived through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans recalls at least one close encounter with deep suffering -- a child missing his parents, an old woman terrified and alone, the scores of injured unable to get to a doctor.

As haunting as the images themselves are the questions that followed -- Whatever happened to them? Did they survive?

For a pair of television journalists, months of wondering came to an end late last month, when a critically injured woman they helped after the storm used the Internet to locate them and say, "Thank you, you saved my life."

Cynthia Salerno had been so wrapped in a fog from critical wounds she suffered in an attack after the storm that she could only recall that a "news crew" had come to her aid. It was not until she learned of the blog maintained by journalist Jim Romenesko (at www.poynter.org) that she posted her story and quickly discovered that her rescuers were NBC reporter Carl Quintanilla and freelance producer Doug Stoddart.

"I am on cloud nine that I finally found them. I don't even care how much FEMA just jerked me around this morning," Salerno said in a recent interview. "Tell everyone you meet what great people these two men are."

Stoddart and Quintanilla demurred at the suggestion they had done anything special.

"I think anyone else would have done the exact same thing if they had been there and seen it," Stoddart said. "People were doing the same sort of thing all over the city. I was just glad to hear she made it out of there."

The two newsmen and the woman they helped shared one of those stranger-than-fiction encounters that became something of the norm in the hours and days after the hurricane blasted New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

Salerno, 53, and her fiance, Paul Trahan, had evacuated to the Superdome. When they felt civility at the mass shelter began to disintegrate, they decided to return to their home in the Bywater neighborhood, along the Mississippi River.

The deluge from the breeched levees hadn't become fully apparent, so the couple joined neighbors in a community meeting. Salerno, who worked in real estate and had lived in the city for 25 years, volunteered to find a working telephone.

She said she rode her bicycle to a local grocery store and called her mother from an outdoor pay phone. When she finished, a man behind her in line grabbed her and began beating her, then slammed her into a wall, before casting her into the street, where bottles hidden beneath the advancing floodwater ripped a gaping wound in her left calf.

Although some people ignored her plight, Salerno said three came to her aid -- even lying down in the street to force an uncooperative van driver to take her for medical help. One of the trio then rode with her -- she still doesn't know who he was but describes him as having "long brown hair, like a hippie." When the driver reached the French Quarter and refused to go any farther, the man who had been riding with her helped get her out of the van.

It was there, on dry ground in front of a Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, that journalists -- including Quintanilla and Stoddart -- had set up a staging area.

Salerno said she still did not know the identity of the young man who helped her into and out of the van, but he pleaded with two New Orleans police officers to take her to the hospital.

According to Quintanilla and Stoddart, who witnessed the exchange, the officers refused, even though the woman was bleeding badly from a wound that reached all the way to the bone.

The officers said there was no medical aid available and that Salerno, who also had blood caked on her head from the attack, would have to find her own way to a shelter, the two newsmen said.

"That said a lot about how helpless everyone felt at that time," Quintanilla said. "They either didn't know how they would get this woman help or they were too beaten down to care."

When the newsmen persisted, they said the officers threatened to arrest them. Only when Stoddart called cameraman Brad Houston to begin filming the situation did the officers relent and agree to help Salerno, the journalists said.

Although Houston never got any video of the exchange, the policemen "backed the squad car around, put on their gloves, put her in the back and sped away," Stoddart said.

Salerno said her ordeal did not end there, because she said the officers left her on a median strip a couple of blocks short of the Superdome. It took a group of British tourists flagging down an Army truck to help deliver her the rest of the way to the shelter, where National Guard troops rushed her to doctors.

Now recovering and setting up house in Charlotte, N.C., Salerno said she might never find her other rescuers.

"It was a whole chain of people that helped," Salerno said. "But if it wasn't for Carl and Doug, I wouldn't have ever seen all those other people."

She said Quintanilla and Stoddart put aside their roles as newsmen.

"They didn't rush over with video running, saying there is a picture that will appeal to middle America, this poor little lady suffering," Salerno said. "They thought, 'Oh, my God, there is someone in distress who needs help.' "

Still limping, although progressing better than doctors had thought, Salerno said she hoped one day to deliver her thanks in person.

Now based in New York as a host of the CNBC business program "Squawk Box," Quintanilla said he never expected to learn the unknown woman's fate.

"The best part about it is we know it turned out OK for Cynthia," he said. "I wish the same thing could happen with the other people we met out there."

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