Armed with just 12 cases of bottled water, five canteens of gasoline and knives purchased from a local Wal-Mart, a trio of Duke University students engaged in a four-day impromptu road trip that ended in the rescue of seven stranded Gulf Coast disaster victims.
Dejected by news reports being broadcast out of the battered region, 19-year-old sophomore Hans Buder felt roused to action.
"I was just watching the news and was really becoming indignant about the way the situation was being handled. There was 20,000 people trapped in the convention center with no food and no water, living like animals," Buder said. "So I called up my roommate Sonny and said, 'I have a proposition for you. We're going down to New Orleans.' And he said, 'I'll be there in five minutes.' So we grabbed one other kid from our hall and took off."
Like Sonny Byrd, David Hankla didn't need much convincing.
"When I saw the look on [Buder's] face, it triggered something inside of me that said, 'You have nothing that could possibly be more important than this. This is a chance to really do something, and you'd not only be a fool to turn it down, you'd regret it for the rest of your life,' " Hankla said.
Within minutes the three sophomores loaded Byrd's Hyundai Elantra and began the 14-hour trip from Durham, North Carolina, to the disaster's epicenter (see "New Orleans Evacuates As Mayor Issues 'Desperate SOS' "). They only took a quick nap in a Montgomery, Alabama, Target parking lot along the way.
After flooded roads and military roadblocks deterred their initial efforts to get into New Orleans, Buder and his crew ended up at Louisiana State University's makeshift medical facility, where they began assisting displaced evacuees. But with an influx of volunteers in the facility, the men knew their services could be better used elsewhere.
The students spent a day volunteering at a TV station, loading water onto trucks and taking in supplies; it was there that they hatched a plan to impersonate members of the press in order to bypass the military checkpoints leading into New Orleans. Byrd swiped a press pass from a reporter's desk, snagged T-shirts and business cards with the station's logo, and made copies of everything at a local Kinko's.
"We just changed the names, found the little lanyards that go around your neck, rolled up to the National Guard, waved the passes and next thing we know, we were on our way into the city," Buder said.
The men said they saw utter destruction and despair when they drove into New Orleans. Byrd weaved their vehicle through roads littered with fallen trees and power lines, surrounded by rotting sewage and human waste. They blindly navigated their way through the city, guided only by a small map and directions they had received from friends.
Eventually the three students stumbled upon a young boy standing on a street corner holding a sign that read "Need Food and Water."
"At first, we were hesitant about stopping, but once we got 50 yards past him, we said, 'You know what? This is why we're here,' " Buder said.
The boy, named Mario, advised the young men to head to the downtown convention center, where thousands of evacuees had been forced to live in desolate and hellish conditions since taking shelter there nearly five days earlier (see "Katrina Leaves At Least 65 Dead, Thousands Homeless"). In less than 20 minutes Buder and Co. were pulling up directly in front of the ravaged convention center.
"It was an absolute disaster zone, and the fact that people had been living there for days with no food or water was too much for us to take in," Byrd said.
"There were dead bodies upstairs, feces and urine was all over the carpet, people had been murdered and beaten inside," Buder added. "It was a perfect hell on earth."
What was most upsetting, according to the students, was how easy it was to reach the arena.
"The same question kept popping up in our minds: 'Why were these people stranded for four or five days without food, no water, in hellish conditions — anarchy, murder, pillaging — when it took us, three college students who had never been to New Orleans, 20 minutes in a Hyundai Elantra?' " Buder said.
After leaving the convention center around 7 p.m., they reunited with Mario and began rounding up displaced residents they could shuttle out of New Orleans. That night, they took one batch of evacuees, including a man named Jesse — who had spent the night in a tree to escape the rising floodwaters and was mauled by fire ants — as well as three women who left their husbands behind until the young men returned for them the next morning.
"On the way out, the women just kept, praying, thanking God," Buder recalled. "They kept calling us the three wise men and their angels."
As promised, at first light, the young men went back to New Orleans and picked up three more people: two of the women's husbands and one other man. The couples were reunited by noon and loaded on a bus to Texas. The trio said they were exhausted and depleted — yet proud — as they embarked on the long drive back to Duke. They arrived at 3 a.m. and still made it to class Monday morning.
It was a trip, the students said, that would perpetually alter their perspectives. It's also driven them to speak out about the experience with the hope of giving a voice to the victims.
"These people told us they felt like strangers in their own city," Byrd said. "They felt abandoned, and blame needs to be placed for that. We're not condemning politicians specifically, but we're saying what happened was not right and it was not American."
The students have yet to hear from the people they helped deliver out of New Orleans, but they said a reunion is in the works.
Despite all the media coverage their story has drawn, the students remain modest about their efforts, insisting it was simply a matter of helping their fellow man.
"We didn't go to change lives," Byrd said. "We just went to help people."
On Saturday, be sure to watch "MTV News Special: After the Storm," which premieres at 7:30 p.m. ET. And immediately after, stay tuned for "ReAct Now: Music & Relief," MTV, VH1 and CMT's Hurricane Katrina benefit concert special. The show will run from 8-11 p.m. ET and will feature Usher, Green Day, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Ludacris, the Rolling Stones, David Banner and many more.
To find out what you can do to help provide relief to victims of Katrina, head to think MTV's hurricane relief page.