09/01/2005

Superdome evacuation halted in N.O. after shots fired at helicopter

By MARY FOSTER
Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS- The evacuation of the Superdome was suspended Thursday after shots were reported fired at a military helicopter and arson fires broke out outside the arena. No injuries were immediately reported.

The scene at the Superdome became increasingly chaotic, with thousands of people rushing from nearby hotels and other buildings, hoping to climb onto the buses taking evacuees from the arena, officials said. Paramedics became increasingly alarmed by the sight of people with guns.

Richard Zeuschlag, chief of the ambulance service that was handling the evacuation of sick and injured people from the Superdome, said it was suspending operations "until they gain control of the Superdome."

Shots were fired at a military helicopter over the Superdome before daybreak, he said.

He said the National Guard told him that it was sending 100 military police officers to restore order.

"That's not enough," said Zeuschlag, whose Acadian Ambulance is based in Lafayette. "We need a thousand."

Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard said the military _ which was handling the evacuation of the able-bodied from the Superdome _ had suspended operations, too, because fires set outside the arena were preventing buses from getting close enough to pick up people.

Tens of thousands of people started rushing out of other buildings when they saw buses pulling up and hoped to get on, he said. But the immediate focus was on evacuating people from the Superdome, and the other refugees were left to mill around.

Zeuschlag said paramedics were calling him and crying for help because they were so scared of people with guns at the Superdome. He also said that during the night, when a medical evacuation helicopter tried to land at a hospital in the outlying town of Kenner, the pilot reported 100 people were on the landing pad, some with guns.

"He was frightened and would not land," Zeuschlag.

Earlier Thursday, the first busload of survivors had arrived at the Houston Astrodome, where air conditioning, cots, food and showers awaited them.

"We are going to do everything we can to make people comfortable," Red Cross spokeswoman Margaret O'Brien-Molina said. "Places have to be found for these people. Many of these people may never be able to rebuild."

Astrodome officials said they would accept only the 25,000 people stranded at the Superdome _ a rule that was tested when a school bus arrived from New Orleans filled with families with children seeking shelter.

At first, Astrodome officials said the refugees couldn't come in, but then allowed them to enter for food and water. Another school bus also was allowed in.

The Astrodome is far from a hotel, but it was a step above the dank, sweltering Superdome, where the floodwaters were rising, the air conditioning was out, the ceiling leaked, trash piled up and toilets were broken.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said the 40-year-old Astrodome is "not suited well" for such a large crowd long-term, but officials are prepared to house the displaced as long as possible. New Orleans officials said residents may not be able to return for months.

The Astrodome's schedule has been cleared through December. The dome is used on occasion for corporate parties and hospitality events, but hasn't been used for professional sports in years.

In New Orleans, the refugees had lined up for the first buses, some inching along in wheelchairs, some carrying babies. Almost everyone carried a plastic bag or bundled bedspread holding the few possessions they had left. Many had no idea where they were heading.

"We tried to find out. We're pretty much adrift right now," said Cyril Ellisworth, 46. "We're pretty much adrift in life. They tell us to line up and go, and we just line up and go."

The Astrodome's new residents will be issued passes that will allow them to leave and return as they please, something that wasn't permitted in New Orleans. Organizers also plan to find ways to help the refugees contact relatives. ___

Associated Press writers Wendy Benjaminson in Baton Rouge, La., and Pam Easton in Houston contributed to this report.

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