The Famous Hurricane Party That Never Happened
By | August 30, 2019
“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.