'I was never thinking about myself... we had to help those folks'

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The Independent US

"There was this baby floating down the street," recalls Mr Austin, 45, who is now among the 15,000 evacuees sheltering in the Houston Astrodome. "The baby was floating in the water inside this refrigerator. The door had been ripped off and the baby's parents were using the refrigerator as a flotation device."

The baby was dozing contentedly, but the yelling had started because the fridge had somehow slipped away in the current. By the time Mr Austin's boat arrived, the baby's parents had caught up with it. They said they didn't need help.

What became of that family, nobody here can tell you. But Mr Austin and his shipmates, Louis Lazard, 27, and Jerry Bastion, 18, know this: in those two days before outside help arrived, they plucked more than 100 people from the water and ferried them to higher ground. "They were clinging to whatever they could cling to," Mr Austin says, "roofs and balconies, anything".

Mr Austin, a burly man who used to work for a New Orleans construction company, looks sheepish if you suggest he and his friends were heroes. Someone had to help his neighbours, who in most cases could not swim. "I was never thinking about myself at that point," he says. "We made a commitment to do something for those folks and we did."

It was late Monday, hours after the storm had subsided, that he saw that the water was rising fast - by about five inches an hour, he thinks now. At daybreak on Tuesday, they found the 18ft craft tied up outside a private house. "We commandeered the boat. We had no idea who it belonged to, but that was just irrelevant at the time."

Altogether about 16 men, he says, took control of five boats, forming a citizens' rescue flotilla. By Tuesday morning, the water in the streets was higher than the ground-floor windows of most of the houses. Mr Austin's house, where he has lived since he was born, was completely submerged.

The only way to move was with paddles. They had no food and almost no water to drink. Mr Austin survived for two days on chocolate bars. They started out unarmed, but that changed after one of the other boats was set on fire when gangs tried to steal it. "People were panicking. Other people with weapons were trying to interrupt what we were doing and we realised we had to get guns of our own." Mr Austin, whose family is safe in Dallas, has never fired a gun in his life, and says with relief that he didn't have to last week either.

Anyone picked up had to do what they were told. "The key rule," says Mr Lazard, "was that we were interested only in people, we didn't want no belongings." Anyone getting on their boat could bring only one small bag.

Mostly they were looking for the old folk. They found one man aged about 70 perched by his chimney after hacking his way out of his attic with an axe. One woman, in her eighties, stuck in her house with her son, refused to leave, insisting the proper authorities would be coming soon to find her. They doubled back for her on the second day. Still she would not budge, and still the authorities hadn't come.

At first, they were taking people to buildings in a housing project that were at least three stories high. Most of those had to be picked up a second time and ferried to the nearby I-610 elevated highway when Mr Austin heard it would become a boarding point for buses taking evacuees out.

That he had to take on the role of rescue worker strikes Mr Austin as very wrong. "It was noon Wednesday, when the sun was shining, before the Coast Guard showed up. I was very surprised by that. They knew half the city hadn't evacuated. These people are too poor to evacuate."

In those two days, the crew never saw a dead body. And, by chance, when they stepped on to the I-610 and let the boat drift away, they somehow ended up just where the first buses arrived. They were in Houston by early Thursday.

Today, Mr Austin has only the clothes he is standing in. But he is safe and plans to look for construction work in Houston this week. He is not sure if he will ever return to New Orleans. Meanwhile, if he doesn't call himself a hero, others can, especially those he pulled from probable death.