Anatomy of a Katrina Media Myth
It all started when CNN repoter Miles O'Brien announced that in Biloxi, Miss., 30 people had died in the St. Charles apartment complex. Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove immediately investigated, expecting a heavy workload. But he discovered that no one had died, and immediately announced the news to the media. This hardly stopped a news story that had already assumed a reality of its own.
Biloxi's public affairs director has seen several versions of the story.
"And it was in a CNN story where we first saw it. Miles O'Brien was standing in front of the Beau Rivage doing a stand up," said City of Biloxi spokesman, Vincent Creel.
The CNN reporter told his audience that 30 people died in the St. Charles apartment complex on the beach in Biloxi.
Concrete columns and an elevated slab are all that's left of the St. Charles condominiums on Highway 90 in Biloxi. But there were certainly not 30 deaths there.
"We never recovered a single body from that location," said Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove.
Hargrove also heard reports of the 30 deaths. He immediately dispatched a search team to St. Charles.
"The minute they reported back and said, no there are not any, I went immediately to the news media and said it's not a true story, we didn't lose thirty of our people in that apartment complex," said Hargrove.
Still, the stories persisted and spread.
Soon, not only CNN, but also Fox News, ABC and others were reporting the "30 deaths" at a Biloxi apartment complex.
Next door to St. Charles condos is the destroyed Sadler Apartments. A neighbor told me the name had been changed to Quiet Water Beach Apartments. No deaths there either, but it was widely reported on the Internet that 30 people died there.
The erroneous report may have started in the Harrison County Emergency Operations Center. During the early hours of Katrina rescue and recovery, EOC spokesman Jim Pollard was asked by a newspaper reporter, "What are you hearing?". His response, "We're hearing that 30 people may have died in an apartment complex", was printed in a story the next day.
"To me, I think it was probably the most infamous urban legend to come out of the storm here in Biloxi," said Vincent Creel.