Islanders who insisted on staying died in Ike

Waves crash behind a statue commemorating the devastating storm of 1900 as Hurricane Ike approaches the Texas coast, Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, in Galveston, Texas. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
October 6, 2008 8:29:13 AM PDT
The final hours brought the awful realization to victims of Hurricane Ike that they had waited too long, that this storm wasn't like the others that left nothing worse than a harrowing tale to tell. ROAD TO RECOVERY: How you can help | School closings | Person locator | Important phone numbers | Assistance from FEMA | Filing a claim | Latest power numbers

George Helmond, a hardy Galveston salt, watched the water rise and told a buddy: I was born on this island and I'll die on this island.

Gail Ettenger, a free spirit who adopted the Bolivar Peninsula as her home 15 years ago, and told a friend in a last phone call: I really messed up this time.

Within hours, the old salt and the free spirit were gone as the powerful Category 2 hurricane wracked the Texas Gulf Coast on Sept. 13, flattening houses, obliterating entire towns and claiming at least 33 lives.

The dead -- as young as 4, as old as 79 -- included lifelong Galvestonians firmly rooted on the island and transplants drawn by the quiet of coastal living. Matriarchs and fathers. Working people and retirees.

Seven people drowned in a storm surge that moved in earlier and with more ferocity than expected. Nine others died in the grimy, sweaty aftermath, when lack of power and medicine exacted its toll. Eleven people were poisoned by carbon monoxide or killed in fires from the generators they used in their own attempts to survive.

And while the list of dead could still grow, hundreds of people are still missing three weeks after Ike's assault on Texas. This week, cadaver dogs pinpointed five spots on Crystal Beach where bodies could be trapped under rubble.

Some vanished during the evacuation of towns in the storm's path. Many were last heard in desperate, last-ditch calls for help.

"We are definitely looking and are going to do anything we can to find them, but there may not be any answers to be given," said Galveston County emergency management spokesman Colin Rizzo. "There are definitely going to be people from Hurricane Ike that are never found."

It took searchers more than two weeks to find the body of Greg Walker, who was stranded in surging water as he was driving back to his home in Port Neches during the storm. The 40-year-old father of three was returning from Louisiana, where he had taken his family.

Around 2:30 a.m., Walker told a 911 dispatcher that he was going to try to swim to safety. He tried calling his wife, but the line went dead.

Orange County officials used search teams, helicopters and cadaver dogs but could not find Walker. Fifteen days after Walker's last call, volunteers from Texas EquuSearch discovered his body a mile from where his truck was found.

Even as Ike bore down on Texas, Jim Devine refused to leave his cream-colored house within sight of the bay in San Leon. Devine had moved to the fishing town after retiring and loved the tranquil way of living there, neighbors said.

The 76-year-old Devine drowned when Ike sent water barreling through his house, picking him off the second-story porch and dropping him a block away. Days later, Devine's empty home still bore the scars of the storm -- shattered windows, twisted wood, and his boat, the Seabar, jammed under the front steps.

His daughter left a warning and a memorial in orange spray paint: "Jim Devine. No Trespassing."

At 72, George Helmond had ridden out many storms and thought he could take on Ike, too, neighbor Don Hanson said. "A lot of old Galvestonians are like that."

Helmond had been one of the first residents of Sydnor Lane, which overlooks a bayou on one side and a golf course on the other. A retired electrician, Helmond was a die-hard fisherman, a dove hunter and straight-shooter intensely proud of his Galveston roots.

"He had no problem telling you what he thought," said Jim Williams, whose family has lived on the street for more than 30 years. "He was an old school Texan, a good ol' boy."

But the morning before Ike slammed ashore, Helmond began to have second thoughts about staying.

Around 10 a.m., Helmond called Hanson, who had already left, to say the water had already slipped over the road and toward his house. The street -- the only way out of the neighborhood -- was already impassable.

At 9:30 p.m., Helmond and Hanson talked for the last time. By then, the water had pummeled through Helmond's garage, crushing the doors and submerging his Cadillac. Hanson begged his friend to grab a life vest at his house or to seek shelter there.

But at 2:30 a.m., for reasons no one knows, Helmond got in his pickup truck and drove off at the height of Ike's fury.

Neighbors found Helmond's body the next day inside the truck, which had slammed into the white golf course fence. The windshield was shattered.

Helmond's home suffered little damage. The water had reached above the first-floor garage, but not inside the house.

"If he had stayed home and hadn't gone out, he'd be OK, but he panicked," said Hanson, 66. "Life goes on, but I will miss a good friend and I will think about him."

Gail Ettenger stumbled upon her house in Gilchrist by accident. But once she saw the site on the bay side of Bolivar Peninsula, she knew she would never leave.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," said JoAnne Burks, Ettenger's neighbor and close friend.

Ettenger, a native of New Jersey, distilled the house with her own energy and style. The 58-year-old's garden bloomed with vibrant birds-of-paradise.

And Reba, an 11-year-old Great Dane hobbled by arthritis, was her baby. Ettenger loved to treat the dog to dinners of chicken and roast beef, Burks recalled.

"She took care of all God's creatures," said Burks. "She was just a good, caring person."

But Ettenger, a chemist at ExxonMobil, didn't evacuate, reasoning that her house had weathered Hurricane Rita in 2005 without a problem. She also did not want to leave Reba, who could no longer climb into Ettenger's Jeep.

Burks and her husband pleaded with Ettenger to change her mind. But she insisted.

Hours before Ike made landfall, Ettenger knew she had made the wrong choice. She called the Burks and described the water pushing up under her feet, the propane tanks and other household items drifting by her windows, and wondered which would float better: her Jeep or her house.

Her voice was shaky with fear, Burks said.

They suggested Ettenger break into a newly built house that was higher and sturdier than her own. Again, Ettenger refused, saying she could not force her way into a neighbor's house.

That was the last time they spoke.

Burks spent the next 10 days searching for her friend, calling local, county and state officials without success. She tried the American Red Cross, FEMA, even private investigators.

"I didn't want her to wind up like the victims of Katrina, who were never found or identified," Burks said.

Ettenger's body was found Sept. 23, tossed on a debris field in a Chambers County marsh about 10 miles from her house.

Burks said both her house and Ettenger's are gone. The house the Burks had urged Ettenger to break into was still standing.

And, amid the muck and remnants of homes, Burks found a pink leather collar. The name Reba was spelled out in rhinestones.

Port Bolivar held special meaning for 79-year-old Marian Violet Arrambide. She met her husband there during World War II. Many years later, he built the beach house where they could retire.

Arrambide, a retired nurse suffering the onset of dementia, lived with her daughter, Magdalena Strickland, and nephew, Shane Williams, in that beach house before Ike struck.

All three have been missing since the morning of Sept. 12, just as Ike began to come ashore.

"My sister said 'I'm walking out the door in a hurry. Everything's taken care of, I'll see you in a few hours.' That was it," said son Raul Arrambide, describing a 6:15 a.m. phone call.

Since then, Arrambide has had little luck getting help or information. Instead, Arrambide said, he's been passed from one agency to another.

"They send you back and forth until you're worn out," said Arrambide, his voice showing the strain of the last weeks.

After five days with no word and no answers, Arrambide borrowed a boat to search the area himself, but sheriff's deputies turned people away. He finally found a local contractor who is helping search for missing residents. That man found his relatives' vehicles, which had been washed off the road into a tree grove.

"I want to keep the hope that they are still alive, but by not hearing from any of them, that hope is getting smaller and smaller," he said. "They helped people all their lives. They did not deserve to go this way."

The estimate of missing residents varies wildly from one agency to another.

According to the non-profit Laura Recovery Center, about 300 people are missing. Of those, about 200 from Galveston. However, the number "goes up and down by the minute" as people call in to remove or add names, cautioned executive director Bob Walcutt.

About 50 people are still missing from the unincorporated areas of Galveston County, which include Bolivar Peninsula, Rizzo said.

Galveston city officials don't know how many island residents are missing, said city spokeswoman Alicia Cahill.

Immediately after the hurricane, Galveston officials conducted door-to-door searches for survivors and possible victims. But the city is no longer taking an active role in the search, she said.

"We have so much to do with responding to damages and infrastructure, we haven't moved into the later stage of looking for people."

In Galveston and Chambers counties, search teams have been using airboats and all-terrain vehicles to sift through massive debris fields, tangled and fetid marshlands, and the rubble left behind by Ike.

The task is massive and the terrain is perilous, said Hector Gonzalez, a game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as he steered an airboat through a maze of cuts and sloughs in Chambers County.

Bodies could have been tossed anywhere in the marshes, where thickets of trees are tangled with seagrass and littered with the contents of houses. Refrigerators, office chairs, and television sets are scattered everywhere ---- in the mud, in bushes, on treetops.

The marshes are thick with snakes, alligators and swarms of mosquitoes. In some places, Gonzalez said, searchers could step into waist-high mud or into an alligator nest.

For most of the last three weeks, search crews were limited to sheriff's deputies, volunteers firefighters and the 16 game wardens in a five-county-area, despite requests for more assistance from local officials.

Late last week, reinforcements from the state and special K-9 search and recovery units arrived, said Crystal Beach Volunteer Fire Chief David Loop, who has been leading recovery efforts.

Loop, whose own house was reduced to a concrete slab by Ike, helped recover bodies after Katrina. But this mission is more personal. Some of those still missing were his neighbors and friends, people he knew by nickname and greeted with a wave and a "How ya doin'?"

"We should make every effort we can to find someone. You should know in your mind that you did every thing possible to find that person or recover that person," said Loop. "Unfortunately, there may be people we might not be able to find, but we want to be able to show the public that did we everything possible to give them closure."

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