The Famous Hurricane Party That Never Happened
CULTURE | September 14, 2019
Satellite image of Camille. Source: (weather.com)
“This is the site of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi. This is the place where twenty-three people laughed in the face of death. And where twenty-three died.”
These were the words uttered on air by Walter Cronkite after Camille leveled the Richelieu Apartment Complex, leaving nothing but the concrete slab. His words were based on the belief that several residents of the apartment complex had chosen to stay put and have a party rather than evacuate, leaving one survivor while the remaining twenty-three perished. When Camille struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 17, 1969, it was a category five hurricane with 190-mph sustained winds. The impact was devastating, and a lot of people died. But there weren’t twenty-three victims from Richelieu Apartments and there was no hurricane party.
The news broadcast was particularly heart-breaking for Josephine Duckworth, whose son Ben was one of the residents who had stayed behind. Her grief was soon discovered to be unnecessary, however, when her husband Hubert Duckworth traveled to Pass Christian to collect their son’s body only to learn that Ben had survived the storm. And he wasn’t the only one to survive. When Ben Duckworth heard that the media was circulating the story of the hurricane party, he talked to them himself, on three separate occasions, in an attempt to set the record straight. But the story of the hurricane party persists to this day.
Duckworth’s decision to stay behind was based on assurance from the apartment complex managers that the building was safe, having been designated as a Civil Defense shelter and having survived Hurricane Betsey four years earlier with only some flooding on the first floor. Most of the residents chose to leave anyway, but the managers offered an empty third-floor apartment to the first-floor residents, including Duckworth, who chose to stay behind. Duckworth might have left anyway, despite hearing that the roads were packed with evacuees, if he and another resident, Navy Seabee Mike Gannon, had not been asked to look after an elderly couple, Zoe and Jack Matthews, as Zoe had recently had hip surgery and couldn’t travel.
So, instead of fleeing to safety, Duckworth spent the day helping to board windows and move cars to higher ground. At some point, a traveling salesman who was friendly with some of the residents stopped by and suggested a hurricane party. Everyone was too tired to take him up on it, so he continued on towards New Orleans. Later, Duckworth would speculate that this could have been the source of the fake hurricane party story. A small group of eight residents, including Duckworth, Gannon, the Matthews, and Duckworth’s friends from Boston, Luane and Rick Keller, gathered in apartment 316.
As the storm moved ashore, the yard flooded and the electricity went out. According to reports on their transistor radio, the storm would make landfall at 11:30 p.m. By 11:14, the water had risen to the third-floor stairwell. Then a crack appeared in the ceiling. At this point, staying in the apartment meant certain death so they attempted to escape to the roof through the hole in the ceiling. Mr. Matthews refused to leave so Gannon carried Mrs. Matthews on his back. Sadly, the water was too strong, and they were pulled apart – her body was never found. Rick Keller survived by clinging to a tree limb, but his wife, Luane, was lost. Another resident, Ed Bielan, also survived but Duckworth didn’t know the fate of a brown-haired woman who was also in the apartment with them. Duckworth himself survived by hanging onto a tree all night.
Despite Duckworth’s efforts to get the truth out there, it was the story of Mary Ann Gerlach which got the attention of the media. Gerlach and her sixth husband Fritz lived on the second floor of Richelieu Apartments and were asleep when the building began to crumble. Gerlach claimed they were taking a nap before joining the alleged party on the third floor. Fritz refused to leave the apartment because he couldn’t swim, but Gerlach survived by grabbing hold of a sofa cushion as she was pulled through the apartment window. She claimed to have seen lights from the party on the third floor as the building was engulfed by the rising water. Gerlach later claimed to have met a Seabee who told her that there were twenty-one bodies recovered from Richelieu Apartments. That number was later increased to twenty-three.
Gerlach continued to repeat her story to the media as well as during memorials for Camille victims. Whether or not she truly believed this story is unknown; however, her reliability as a witness is in question as she would later serve time for killing her eleventh husband after failing to get off on an insanity plea.
Tags: Hurricane | The Famous Hurricane Party That Never Happened
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