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Nursing home owners charged

Thirty-four people died when hurricane hit

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Salvador and Mable Mangano feared moving some patients would kill them, the couple's attorney says.

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- The attorney for a couple charged with 34 counts of negligent homicide said Tuesday his clients never abandoned the nursing home where people tried to ride out Hurricane Katrina.

The Category 4 hurricane swamped St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, near New Orleans, killing 34 people August 29.

On Tuesday, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. charged Mable and Salvador Mangano Sr., both 65, with 34 counts of negligent homicide. (Watch the attorney general explain the charges -- 4:23)

Foti said the nursing home's patients should have been moved to a safer place.

"They did not die of natural causes; they drowned," Foti told reporters. "Thirty-four people drowned in a nursing home where they should have been evacuated."

The Manganos, who face up to five years on each count, surrendered Tuesday to Medicaid Fraud Control Unit investigators in Baton Rouge and posted bail.

Jim Cobb, an attorney for the Manganos, told CNN that his clients said they were never told about the mandatory evacuation, and the couple were concerned that if they moved their patients, many would have died.

The owners stayed in the nursing home through the storm with their children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews, he said. (Watch video of the owners' attorney -- 5:10)

Tammy Daigle, a nurse at St. Rita's, agreed that the Manganos didn't want to risk losing any patients.

"Instead of endangering their lives, they [the Manganos] thought they could stay safely in the building with all of them," she told CNN.

But Foti said the owners had plenty of opportunity to move their charges out of the facility. The Manganos were asked if they wanted to evacuate the building and were offered buses; in addition, they had signed last April a contract with Acadian Ambulance Service to provide transportation in the event an evacuation was needed, Foti said, but "they were never called."

Dr. Bryan Bertucci, a coroner, said he called all five nursing homes in the parish as the storm was threatening the city, and all but St. Rita's said they were evacuating their patients.

By Sunday at 2 p.m., when the danger was imminent and a mandatory evacuation order had been issued, he called back and spoke with Mrs. Mangano.

"I told her I had two buses with two drivers that would take them wherever they want," Bertucci told CNN.

But he said he was told that five special needs patients could not be evacuated. "She said, 'I have five nurses, I have a generator, and I've spoken to the families and they said it was OK.' "

The Manganos had a spotless record for 20 years, and the home was well-regarded in the community, Cobb, their attorney, said. Eighty-five percent of the patients were from St. Bernard Parish, he said.

"At the end of the day the relatives of these people decided that it was best for their relatives to be there," he said.

Workers at the nursing home called each family, Cobb said, to tell them they were prepared with supplies and medicine and were staying at the home. Only six people came to get family members, he said.

Bertucci said the Manganos had provided good care before the storm, but he found fault with their decision not to evacuate. "I think they made a poor decision," he said.

Foti said it was unclear whether all 34 bodies were patients, family members or people who had sought refuge in the home.

Between 40 and 50 other people were rescued from the facility, St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stevens has said. Cobb said the Manganos "saved 52 lives."

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