Friday, March 03, 2006
McCloy will 'roll his eyes' at all the attention
I have been reporting on Sago mine survivor Randy McCloy's recovery for two months now, and yesterday, I interviewed his wife, Anna. While I had seen and heard her speak at the few press conferences she has held so far, I have never seen her as relaxed and animated as she was yesterday. The reason is simple: She told me it wasn't until just a week ago that she felt Randy was showing signs of real recovery -- speaking to her and their children, able to remember details, and perhaps most important, shining through with a sense of humor.
For much of the past two months, she and Randy's doctors have described his recovery as "miraculous" and "exceeding their expectations." But in talking to them yesterday, it became clear that while they have been optimistic, it is really only now that they are confident of Randy's ability to regain much of what the Sago mine disaster threatened to take from him forever -- his essential personality, his ability to interact with friends and family.
Anna has become well-practiced at dealing with the media. She told me with a big chuckle that Randy will most likely roll his eyes at the notion of being the center of attention. She says he's aware that a lot of media attention awaits him when he leaves the hospital. My guess is there will be a temptation to cast Randy as a symbol of all that is good and troubled about the coal mining industry. Even without that burden, it would be challenging enough for them to handle all of the interview requests and shrug off the inevitable misrepresentations that happen when stories are retold.
I just hope they can regain some peace and quiet and reconnect with their community, which has lost so much.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
Jihad Jack was a prized catch
Just the name says so much -- Jihad Jack.
Otherwise known as Jack Thomas, Jihad Jack is an Australian convert to Islam who took the Muslim name of Jihad and ended up at an al Qaeda training camp in 2001. He gets a gleam in his eyes as he describes Osama bin Laden "float across the room." By his own admission, he was offered cash and a plane ticket by one of bin Laden's top lieutenants to go back to Australia, under no illusion that it was for anything but terrorism.
Does the story sound familiar? Maybe you're thinking of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, who is now in a U.S. prison? He also went to Afghanistan, the same training camp, in fact, and was also someone al Qaeda wanted to recruit. Both men are converts to Islam and terrorism experts say they are prized catches for al Qaeda -- basically white guys who can blend back into their own societies.
Which makes you wonder: How many Jihad Jacks are out there? And what made him and others like him go to Afghanistan in the first place?
This week, an Australian court convicted Jihad Jack of intentionally receiving funds from al Qaeda and possessing a falsified passport. But he was acquitted of intentionally providing resources to al Qaeda.
Tonight, you'll hear an interview Jihad Jack did with an Australian TV program. He discusses his conversion to Islam and his journey to Afghanistan, but swears he never planned to attack his countrymen. He says he took the money because he felt he was owed it.
Violent death raises troubling questions
In 1999, Rashad Williams was an antidote to the poison of despair that was the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings. Just 15 years old, he became a national celebrity after raising tens of thousands of dollars for one of the victims. Williams was interviewed by many TV networks, including CNN. He even made an appearance on Oprah.
Popular, handsome and athletic, Rashad Williams strikes me as the kind of kid that many teenagers wished they could be. He was probably the kind of kid a lot of parents wished they could have raised. So it was with particular surprise and sadness that I read of his violent death a few months ago in California.
In December, Rashad was shot twice in the back and died in the middle of the street -- the result of what authorities describe as a violent home invasion. But then, details surfaced that floored me. Rashad, 21 years old, wasn't a target of the home invasion -- he was an intruder and was shot by the homeowner. Turns out that in recent years he had robbed banks and passed counterfeit checks. I have since talked to people who knew him best and we all share the same question: How could this happen?
Some possible clues emerge in these interviews, which we will feature tonight. At times, Rashad had problems with stress from the demands of celebrity. Also, there were issues at home with his mom going through a divorce. He was so burned-out in his senior year that he flunked classes and couldn't get a diploma. But are these reasons for such a terrible turn in a once inspiring life? I never found that answer and probably never will.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
The best day of Mardi Gras
My favorite part of Mardi Gras? Ash Wednesday -- when it's over! (I'm only partly serious.)
Living in New Orleans, I always tell out-of-town friends that unlike the let down you get after Christmas in any other city, there is no let down in New Orleans. As soon as you put away the Christmas decorations, out come the purple, green and gold Mardi Gras decorations. Then come the parties, and the sticky-sweet "king cakes" in every office, and lots of afternoons when you duck out of work early to meet friends at the parades.
But after two full weeks of throwing my arms in the air to beg for plastic beads, I'm ready for Ash Wednesday. In this rather Catholic city, the day after Fat Tuesday is truly a time to repent. The faithful gather at St. Louis Cathedral to have ashes rubbed on their foreheads -- a reminder of "dust to dust" -- and the city is quiet...calm..peaceful. It is our city again -- the one we reclaim from the tourists on Bourbon Street.
And in the branches of the old oak trees along St. Charles Avenue you'll see those brightly colored beads -- hundreds of strands of beads that were thrown from the floats but never made it to those outstretched arms.
A reminder of our wild side -- until the next big rain brings them all down.
Old horrors, young victims (Part II)
I'm humbled by the sheer volume of responses to my blog post
, partly because many of you were responding even before you'd seen the TV version of this story about the horrors inflicted on the children of Gulu in northern Uganda. I'm particularly touched by your humanity, in a world where inhumanity seems to be the order of the day.
Someone asked whether my heart bleeds every time I cover one human tragedy after another. The answer is yes. I lay awake many nights trying to find answers to seemingly intractable questions -- Why have we become so cruel to ourselves? What makes us revert to our basic "animal" instincts of killing our own without guilt or remorse? Why, in the 21st century, are so many of us living like our medieval ancestors?
The Joseph Kony's of this world are everywhere, like many of you pointed out -- in Kosovo, in Chile, in Cambodia, in Congo. I, like many of you, have my own ideas of what I'd want to see done to Kony and his ragtag group of rapists, murderers and pedophiles. But alas, it's not for us to decide their fate. That would make us like them -- animals that kill for the sake of killing.
Many of you asked the fundamental question -- what can be done to help these children? I say you're already doing it. By speaking out, by blogging, by letting friends and family know. These are always good first steps. Word of mouth is still an effective tool in the 21st century. The next step is to write to your congressman, your senator, your elected leaders. Tell them of this horror that exists in our time and make some noise. Lots of noise. That's the only way to keep stories like this on the "front burner." Otherwise, people quickly forget once the "kids" are off the evening news.
For those that want to contribute monetarily, there are a number of credible non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing a yeoman's job out there. UNICEF
, World Vision
, others. Their websites are easily accessible. Make sure you indicate the monies are specifically for the "Night Commuters" of Gulu, otherwise the contributions could get lost in some huge, bureaucratic blackhole.
Finally, I'll continue to highlight "my" peoples' plight as long as you continue to show interest. I feel I was born to tell the African story, without fear or favor. Sometimes, it's painful, other times it's fearful, most times it's rewarding for me as a journalist and as an African, especially when I get responses like the ones from this last story. They make me realize I'm doing what I was meant to be doing.
Thanks to all of you for getting involved. Now let's go out there and make some noise.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Could criminals walk free in New Orleans?
Wouldn't it be a strange and disturbing twist if the same storm that killed more than a thousand innocent people ended up freeing thousands of criminals? Dangerous criminals, like child molesters, rapists, even murderers.
It could happen in New Orleans, where Katrina has brought the justice system to a standstill. The city's public defenders office is broke, documents are destroyed, and the courts are running out of time to bring defendants to trial. State law says they have no more than three years to do so.
In tonight's show, you'll meet Dwight Doskey, a public defender whose office is now his pickup truck. The original public defenders office was condemned after Katrina.
Doskey is handling more than 700 cases alone. He says it would take him all year just to interview his clients, never mind doing extensive research on their cases. And that doesn't even account for court appearances.
As we found out, Louisiana is the only state in the country that relies on traffic fines to fund its public defender program. Because nobody was driving or parking after the storm, the office lost 70 percent of its funding and had to lay off 36 of its 42 lawyers.
Also tonight, you'll hear the story of a confessed killer who strangled a woman in New Orleans back in 2003. Come December, if his case hasn't been heard, he can walk free, even though he told police he needs to get off the street before he kills again.
We contacted the Louisiana attorney general's office for comment, but they haven't returned our calls.
'Hey Anderson, throw me some beads'
New Orleans has always been a complex city, a gritty gumbo town, not quite here, not quite there. Now, that is especially true.
Reporting here, you spend your days in the lower Ninth Ward, or in Saint Bernard Parish, where there are still miles of mud and acres of ruin, only to come back at night to Bourbon Street, where we stay, and see thousands of revelers, drinking and tossing beads, occasionally baring their breasts.
Bourbon Street is probably what most people think of when they think of Mardi Gras. Crowds of college-age kids, and those still wishing they were, take part in a raunchy, round-the-clock carnival of chaos, reveling amid piles of trash. It's mostly tourists, of course, though locals do occasionally drop by just to see what the visitors are up to.
Bourbon Street, however, is not what Mardi Gras is really about. At heart, Mardi Gras is a family affair.
Sunday night, I rode in a parade with Endymion, one of the major carnival organizations. I was a guest on Dan Aykroyd's float, and I was honored to ride with a half-dozen first responders -- police officers and firefighters -- the real heroes of the storm.
It was an experience I will never forget. Some of you have seen pictures of these parades, but they don't really capture the emotion of the moment. Tens of thousands of people line the parade route. Many haven't seen each other since Hurricane Katrina. They are young and old, black and white, a sea of smiles.
I found it impossible not to keep smiling myself, and after a few hours my face literally hurt from smiling. On the float, your job is to throw out beads, thousands of them, and everyone it seems is screaming for more. Dan Aykroyd, who truly loves New Orleans, told me his strategy, "I like to lob them in the air, so they have time catch them and don't get one in the eye." I used his method, because it's easy to hurt someone with all the projectiles flying through the air.
It's a very public event, of course, but there's something intensely personal about the throwing of the beads. You make eye contact with someone, toss them a necklace. They say thank you, and you roll on. The only beads people want are the ones they catch themselves. I find that very telling. The beads that fall on the ground are rarely picked up. They lack the personal connection, the bond has been broken.
I was on the float for at least four hours, but the truth is that after a while, the screaming seems to disappear, so do the crowds. All you see are the faces, one after the other.
I've come to Mardi Gras before, always for work, but for the first time I realize what it's all about. It's not Bourbon Street, and it's not the beads -- they are plastic and not worth much at all. It's about making a connection, one person to another, the present to the past. Like catching the beads, Mardi Gras is an act of luck, a reach of faith, a fleeting moment, in which everyone, young and old, rich and poor, housed or homeless, can reach out and hope for a better day.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Alarm, gratitude bind survivors' stories
As my cameraman and I drove along the Gulf Coast this week, it was as if we were connecting the dots of Hurricane Katrina, from one town, and one person, to the next. Our assignment was to revisit some of the people we met in the days and weeks after the hurricane to see how they are doing now.
There was the woman who lost her home in Waveland, Mississippi, but now celebrates the birth of her first grandchild; a psychiatrist who after Katrina walked the streets of New Orleans armed with a gun, but now drives those same streets counseling police, EMS, and other first responders; a retired merchant marine who videotaped the storm as it invaded his home, but now repairs it all himself; and a volunteer who tirelessly served hot meals to workers, and now is back at work as a juvenile probation officer. These are only a few of the many people we met.
Despite the different stories, two themes regularly emerged in our conversations. The first is one of alarm -- alarm that the killer storm evolved so rapidly into a depraved situation due to the poorly organized response, and concern that the next disaster might follow the same course. The second is one of gratitude -- gratitude toward the people who came from every corner of the country to help rescue, relieve, and rebuild the Gulf Coast.
The greatest lesson of all?
I've often asked myself, as I'm sure some of you have, do bad things happen for a reason? Well, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, there are three pint-sized little girls who were brought together by Hurricane Katrina. Their names are Anna, Kered and Christina, and they are third-graders at Resurrection School.
Before the storm, nearly all the students at Resurrection were white. Kered, who is black, attended St. Peter the Apostle, an all black school. But Katrina caused Kered's school to crumble, and along with it 100 years of racial separation.
St. Peter had nowhere else to turn for its students to learn, so it was decided all the students, black and white, would go to school together at Resurrection. Now, of the more than 300 students at Resurrection, 55 are black. The lesson plan is the same, but the faces sure have changed.
Little Anna told me, "I didn't think it was very fair. That's why Martin Luther King was here. I kept hoping other 'colored' kids were gonna come here." And Kered told me, about her old school, "I loved St. Peter with my whole heart. It's just that I want white friends. I couldn't take it."
It's amazing to hear such thoughts about race and prejudice from 9-year-olds. I think these girls can teach all of us, especially adults, some important lessons about acceptance and friendship. What do you think?
The 'pull' of Mardi Gras
On my flight to New Orleans, I sat next to a woman who lost her home because of Hurricane Katrina, relocated to Atlanta, but was feeling like she must return to New Orleans. The reason is the "pull" of Mardi Gras.
What we've found this week as we walk the streets of the Big Easy is that many evacuees find they can't let Mardi Grass happen without being back for it.
It's hard to understand for a lot of us from other places, but celebrating Mardi Gras is part of the soul of so many people who live here...and who lived here.
So they are coming back in throngs. We spent some time with Ashley Cantrelle, a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Katrina destroyed her house, her family is split up and her only home is a dorm room. But we watched her celebrate at a parade and as she caught beads on Bourbon Street.
It reinvigorated her spirit even as she boarded the bus back to her dorm in Baton Rouge, where she still has to worry about where she will live when the school year ends.
They lost their homes, but still want to party
Two months ago, I would turn out of my parking garage on the way to work and see the Rocky Mountains. I was CNN's Denver correspondent.
Now, the most memorable sight is endless debris fields. I moved to New Orleans to cover the still unfolding Katrina story.
Sunday night, I found myself sitting on top of a King Midas float, wearing purple satin and gold lame. I had the pleasure of taking part in the Endymion parade, one of New Orleans' annual Mardi Gras events.
A lot has been made about Mardi Gras this year. Should they? Shouldn't they? I can tell you that around 200 of the participants in Endymion lost their homes, lost everything. To a person, everyone we talked to felt the city should throw the annual carnival.
It is hard to show you how widespread the devastation is down here. Homes, entire communities completely wrecked. No real plan to rebuild. It is even harder to explain how difficult day to day life is for many people.
I don't know if the city should have had the party. But, I am glad it did. It is nice to see this city spring to life, if even for a few days.