No Way Out
Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, La. (CBS)
Parish President Junior Rodriguez was relieved. "I said, 'You know, I think we did all right. We made it,'" he remembers,
"We were on the top floor of the government complex. We said, 'We escaped this time.' And I guarantee you, within a half hour, we were cursing everybody around," Larry Ingargiola remembers.
That's because the worst news imaginable started coming in: the levees had breached and the parish was filling up with water fast. By Monday evening, parish officials were marooned on the roof of the government center.
Asked to describe the situation in the parish, Ingargiola says, "Twenty-eight feet of water. A lake."
"We had a lot of serious problems in this parish," Junior Rodriguez remembers. "There was a smell of death in the air."
Since communications were cut off, no one knew what had happened at St. Rita's. So on Wednesday, a fireman in St. Bernard Parish commandeered a boat and drove it to the nursing home's front door. That fireman was Steve Galladoro, the brother of Cheryl and Joe.
"He's calling out. No one's answering. Takes a few more steps and he bumps into somethin'. And the next thing he realizes is that it's a body. Takes a few more steps. And he realizes there's another body floating. So he told me at that point, he didn't wanna take another step because if the next body woulda been my father. He didn't know whether or not he could handle that," Joe says.
Steve says he radioed his firehouse with news of his tragic discovery. Then he went to a nearby school where he heard the survivors had been taken.
"The nurses and the attendants that work at St. Rita's were there, and he couldn't get any of them to look him in the face. And he kept on pleading with them to tell him where my father was," Joe says. "Finally, one of the attendants looked up, crying, and said 'We tried, Steve. We tried. But we couldn't save him.'"
Parish coroner Bryan Bertucci was now put in charge of a recovery effort. "It was something that you just can't imagine. Furniture was all over. Wheelchairs, beds. We went from room to room, moved furniture, retrieved bodies. We tried to identify people, but these people had been in water so long that they were bloated," he remembers.
Thirty-five bodies were ultimately pulled out of St. Rita's. Yet it was unclear what had happened to the owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano. That made them villains to some, like CNN's Nancy Grace. "And now I'm hearing that these two owners, that made money off all of these elderly nursing home citizens, were out shopping - shopping - after all of these elderlies died," Grace said on TV.
It turns out the Manganos weren't shopping. They remained in the drowned parish for several days until their surviving residents were all evacuated. Then, like so many others, the Manganos themselves were evacuated to Texas. That's when they heard the Louisiana attorney general's office was looking for them, so they hired attorney Jim Cobb.
"The public perception fueled by a ridiculous 24-hour news cycle media, was that the Manganos abandoned their residents. To this day, people say, 'Well, you know, gosh, why did they leave them?'" Cobb says.
So Cobb brought the Manganos to the attorney general's office in Baton Rouge to explain what happened. But when they got there, the Manganos were immediately arrested and each was charged with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty to the infirm.
"When they put me in the cell and they shut that door, reality really, really sunk in. I couldn't believe that I was being locked up in this cell," Mabel says. "I hadn't even had a traffic ticket in 20 years, 25 years. And all of a sudden, I wake up one day and I'm charged with killing 35 people and being cruel to the people that we loved so much."
Even as the Manganos were released on bail, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti took the case public. "The pathetic thing is in this case, once again, is that they were asked if they wanted to move them, they refused to move them. They had a contract to move them, they did not," Foti said at a press conference.
And in St. Bernard Parish, particularly among people like Tom Rodrigue, whose mother died at St. Rita's, there was little sympathy for the couple. "I counted on them to take care of her," he says.
Asked if the Manganos let him down, Rodrigue says, "I think they let every family member of the 35 people that died down."
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