Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

New Orleans PD

The Axeman

Sgt. Danny Scanlan in truck
Sgt. Danny Scanlan in truck

New Orleans police Sgt. Danny Scanlan reached for his rifle as soon as he heard the first gunshot.  He was on the roof of the five-story health clinic next door to the 1st District police station on North Rampart Street, at the edge of the French Quarter.  It was almost midnight, three days since the hurricane, three days since the levees broke, three days since the beginning of the chaos.  Scanlan was spending the night on the roof.  He was looking for snipers.

On Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, a hurricane named Katrina slammed into New Orleans and changed the city forever.  The storm ripped open the floodwalls that surround New Orleans and released a torrent of water that short-circuited the power grid and drowned out the system of aging pumping stations that for decades had battled to keep dry a city that sits six feet below sea level.

Breached levee, 9th ward
Breached levee, 9th ward

By Monday afternoon, most of New Orleans was under water.  In some neighborhoods, it reached as high as 10 feet.  To escape the flood, thousands of residents climbed into their attics or crawled onto their roofs.  Some stood atop their cars.  Others clung to makeshift rafts.  They needed help.  They needed rescuing.

Sgt. Danny Scanlan had kept up with the storm on television.  He had watched it transform from a Category 1 lightweight that was supposed to hit the Florida panhandle into a 175-mile-per-hour Category 5 monster that had taken direct aim at New Orleans.  Long before Mayor Ray Nagin issued the city's first-ever mandatory evacuation order, Scanlan knew the situation was going to get bad, really bad.  That's why, when he reported for work the day before the storm's expected landfall, he brought along something extraan axe.

Scanlan had grown up hearing stories from his father about Hurricane Betsy, which slammed into New Orleans in 1965, flooding the city and taking dozens of lives.  "I knew what was going to happen," he says.  "I knew there were going to be people in those attics."  He also knew that once the flood came, the only way to get people out of an attic was to cut through the roof. 

As soon as the storm passed, Scanlan and a couple of other policemen launched a 19-foot fishing boat from an interstate ramp and started rescuing stranded survivors.  "There were people everywhere," Scanlan recalls, "on their rooftops, inside their houses in waist-deep water.  You just try to get the ones you can.  We probably took a hundred people out."

Sometime during that first afternoon, Scanlan spotted a man standing on a roof.  As Scanlan steered the boat toward him, the man waved him away, then pointed to a nearby house.  "Go get them first," he shouted.

Officer helping Katrina victim from roof
Officer helping Katrina victim from roof

Scanlan and the other officers looked in the direction the man was pointing.  Something on top of the house moved and drew their eyes toward an attic vent near the peak of the roof.  A stick was poking up through the vent, a handkerchief tied to the tip.  The stick waved back and forth.  Someone was trapped inside the attic.  Scanlan reached for his axe.

He climbed on top of the house and chopped a hole through the roof.  Inside the attic Scanlan found a 25-year-old womana college studentwho'd smashed through the ceiling and pulled herself up into the attic to signal for help.  Her mother, father, and grandmother were trapped in the kitchen, standing on top of the breakfast table, trying to keep above the rising water. 

After he got the young woman into the boat, Scanlan climbed back on top of the roof and crawled down into the attic.  He lowered himself onto the kitchen table.  The water stood nearly six feet deep inside the house. 

With the grandmother clinging to his back, Scanlan swam toward the front of the house.  He threaded his way through a maze of floating furniture and out the front door.  After helping the grandmother into the boat, Scanlan swam back into the house and led the mother and father to safety.


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