All that remained of the Richelieu Apartments after Hurricane Camille was the foundation slab. Ben Duckworth suffered recurring nightmares about a friend he lost in the storm. He revisited the site in 1972, where the cement slab was well hidden by bushes. Duckworth returned again in 2001 to try to correct the Richelieu story that persists as a Hurricane Party where everyone perished but one.
In the days following Camille, the national news people cruised the Coast ready to engage anyone who would talk.
The voice of Walter Cronkite, one of the most respected TV newsmen of 1969, lost its comforting timbre when he told the world about Hurricane Camille and its destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The camera panned a cement slab littered with debris, which was all that remained of a three-story luxury apartment complex.
"This is the site of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi," Cronkite said. "This is the place where 23 people laughed in the face of death. And where 23 people died."
Josephine Duckworth was watching television in Jackson — and that is how she was notified that her 24-year-old son, Ben, was dead. He was a Richelieu resident who had ignored her pleas to evacuate. Now he was dead! Because Cronkite said so. Her husband, Hubert Duckworth, immediately headed to the Coast to claim their son's body and he stared at the Richelieu rubble, expecting the worst. It was then, that Mike Gannon, a storm-battered 29-year-old Texas Seabee, greeted him. "Where can I find my son's body?" the father inquired.
"Ben isn't dead," Gannon told him. "I've seen him, and he's all right."
Gannon and Duckworth were Richelieu survivors – and they weren’t the only ones. Yet, the most persistent legend to spring from Camille is of a Richelieu Hurricane Party that claimed 23 lives, leaving just one survivor.
At age 55, H.J. "Ben" Duckworth, Jr. returned to the site of the Richelieu in 2001. It was the parking lot of a new shopping center at Henderson Ave. and Hwy 90. Several blocks away, the giant oak, upon which he'd clung through 200-plus mph winds and 25-plus-foot tides brought on by a huge tidal wave, was demolished by new development.
Duckworth seldom mentions Camille to friends and family, but three times he talked to the media to squelch the Richelieu legend. Three times his story went unheard on the Coast.
"There was no hurricane party," Duckworth reiterated in 2001. "We were exhausted from boarding up windows and helping the police move cars. We were too tired to party.
"I can’t tell you why that story persists, or why people didn't put two and two together. I guess the hurricane party makes a good story. I'm not down here to tell a story. Something inside me said that I need to tell what I know, that I need to set the record straight."
Retelling the story was not easy.
Loud hammering awoke Duckworth that Sunday morning, August 17. He put on a swimsuit under his jeans to help the apartment manager's husband board up. The investment director for Continental Construction of Gulfport shared a first-floor apartment with Missouri Navy medical technician Buddy Jones. The managers, Merwin Jones and his wife, had assured residents that the building was safe. Hurricane Betsy four years earlier had flooded the bottom floor, they said, but caused no structural damage. Besides, black and yellow signs designated it as a Civil Defense shelter, and according to the building plans, there were steel beams.
Regardless, most of the Richelieu residents had left, and for those who stayed at first floor level, the Joneses offered an empty third-floor suite. When his roommate was called to the base for duty, Duckworth continued to board up and carried their belongings to a higher floor.
The police came by and asked for help to move cars to higher grounds, so Duckworth spent the afternoon driving people to their homes. Once back at Richelieu, he heard that the roads were jammed with evacuees.
About this time, a traveling salesman who knew some residents, stopped by the complex. "Let's get some beer and have a hurricane party," the salesman said.
"We were too exhausted, and when he couldn't find any takers, he got in his car and headed toward New Orleans," Duckworth remembered. "That probably saved his life, but I've wondered if that man isn't the origin of the legend. Maybe someone heard him and thought the party really happened."
A Nightmare of Reality
Duckworth's decision to stay the storm became concrete when the elderly residents, Zoe and Jack Matthews, asked him and Mike Gannon to look after them. She had just undergone hip surgery.
They moved up to #316 and were joined by others until there were eight. Among them were Duckworth's Boston friends, Luane and Rick Keller, and the Navy man, Mike Gannon. In comforting the group, Mrs. Keller fixed a pot roast.
Soon, the wind whipped up, the sea water washed over the beach road and into the pool in the front yard. The electricity died, so they lit candles – and they stayed glued to the transistor radio, which told them the Storm would land at 11:30 p.m.
When Mrs. Matthews asked if they would survive, Duckworth took a flashlight to check the water depth. He opened the stairwell and the flashlight reflected back from the water. It was then 11:14. “If the building holds up for 16 more minutes,” he told her, “We’ll be OK.”
Then the sheetrock started opening up like a zipper and the ceiling began to crack. They quickly enlarged an opening in the ceiling and began escaping to the roof top of the three-story building. Gannon put Mrs. Matthews on his back and climbed out, but her husband was too old and refused attempts to leave. Once in the rushing water, Mrs. Matthews was separated from the Seabee and her body was never found.
Rick Keller latched onto a tree limb, and became separated from his wife, Luane.
Another person in #316, Ed "Mike" Bielan, survived, but Duckworth doesn't know what happened to a brown-haired woman who had also joined them.
Duckworth continued his own plight. "After reaching the roof, I was pulled under water, but when I came up I slammed into a tree limb and hung on for dear life. I stayed there, with my nose buried in a groove in the bark. Every time I'd raise my head, the wind would suck the air right out of me. The sound of the wind was terrifying."
For about five hours he kept his nose stuck in that groove, sometimes underwater. About 5 a.m., Duckworth saw a light and heard a voice. He labored to scale down the tree into the arms of an unknown savior who remarked, "Dis child, he cold." Only his spandex swimsuit stayed on exposing a deep gash in his leg.
Duckworth was taken to Pass Christian High, where other survivors gathered. Delirious, he crawled out the window and back to the Richelieu, where he found a distraught Rick Keller. "She's gone. She's gone," is all Keller could say about his dead Luane.
Duckworth's roommate found him at the school and rushed him to the Gulfport Navy base, where doctors said he was lucky. The severed artery in his leg had been cauterized by the salt water and pounding winds.
Duckworth could have bled to death as he thought about God that night. But he didn't, and today he often mentions the Lord's name. "Planting a seed here; planting a seed there," he calls it. Camille was a life-changing experience for the young Mississippi State University business school graduate, who although successful today, scoffs at materialism: "I lost everything that night but my life."
When will someone listen?
Two days after the Storm, Duckworth's father drove him to Jackson, MS. Several days later, he was recuperating at his best friend's house in Memphis when he sought out a reporter to correct the Richelieu story. "I didn't want Luane's family to believe that she had died in a hurricane party," Duckworth said. "I made the reporter promise that he would put the truth on the national wire so that rumor could be stopped."
The rumor, instead, grew bigger. The telephone wires were down, the Memphis Commercial Appeal story never made it to the Coast, and the Richelieu saga of Mary Ann Gerlach took over.
Gerlach claimed to be the only survivor, and is the one most quoted about a hurricane party on the third floor. Yet, she and her sixth husband were asleep in their second-floor apartment when the building disintegrated and she landed in the swirling abyss. Many Camille survivors would not talk to the media, but she would and remained in demand at Camille anniversary memorials. Her interviews kept the legend alive.
In 1982, when on trial for murdering her 11th husband, Gerlach's lawyer used an insanity defense, claiming her Camille experience and the resulting drug and alcohol abuse caused her to kill her husband. She was found guilty, sentenced to life imprisonment, but was paroled in 1992.
Duckworth does not want a "he-said, she-said" debate, but he wonders why nobody questioned the many discrepancies. “Of the 23 known residents to have stayed the Storm at the Richelieu,” he pointed out, “only eight are known to be dead or missing.”
Billy Bourdin, a Pass Christian historian and retired plumber who rescued many that night, wonders the same thing. He said that Pass Christian Civil Defense Director Parnell McKay went to his grave trying to correct the story, which he often reprinted in the weekly newspaper that he published. McKay's records and editorials, needless to say, were ignored by the larger media.
Bourdin, who has picked up McKay's mantle, tells of a History Channel documentary in which he was interviewed. He explained the Richelieu dead and the false party rumor, but none of that script got into the documentary.
Duckworth himself made another attempt with two Jackson newspapers in the 1990s, but he told his story to columnists, not realizing columns are not sent out on AP wires for distribution. What brought him back to the Coast was the announcement of the new Camille memorial and chairman Julia Guice's search for the correct names to be etched on the black granite walls. In her search, Guice uncovered others who, like Duckworth, lived.
"I can understand why Richelieu survivors aren't coming forward," said Guice, who was Biloxi's 1969 Civil Defense director. "It was such a horrific experience. No one wants to relive it."
Mary Ann Gerlach's Story
Mary Ann Gerlach has often been reported as the only surviving person from the beachfront Richelieu Apartments on Highway 90. Over the years, it has also been recounted that 23 others stayed to "party the night away". The story was mistakenly reported as such by national news media the day following Camille and continues as a myth in commemoration releases by local and national news media.
Some reports had it that Hurricane Camille promoted an excuse for a Hurricane Party.
According to Gerlach, she and her husband Fritz had stocked up on food and booze for the evening. They had worked late the previous night, so they decided to take a nap before partying with the other apartment tenants. She was awakened by the strong gusts of wind and siding boards being ripped off the apartment complex. Leaping forth, she jerked her husband from his sleep. She looked up as the walls cracked open and the third floor above her was about to crumble down upon them. Her husband Fritz didn't want to leave because he couldn't swim. The rising waters gushed around her. Instinctively, she grabbed onto a sofa cushion as the waves thrust her out a window. She noted that the waters were also thrashing against the top floor where the other tenants were supposedly having their Hurricane Party. She couldn't distinguish the people, but she could still see the lights, as she was being washed away. Then the lights went under water. The third floor of the hurricane-proof apartment complex tumbled into the murky swirling waters driven by the Gulf tide.
Gerlach swam and clung to pieces of floating debris and furniture. She was exhausted from being in the water from 11 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. the next morning. She was found bleeding, skinned up, and limp as a rag doll atop a mountain of debris. Her husband's body wasn’t found until more than a week later – bloated and battered beyond recognition – except for a diamond ring that she had given him for their anticipated second wedding anniversary.
Getting to the Truth
During the first days and weeks of confusion following August 17th, 1969, there were stories picked up and disseminated through the national press which have been perpetuated over and over again, even continued each anniversary date by the local media. News accounts from the first year have been rehashed and reprinted without correction or edit of new findings.
From early on, the Pass Christian Tarpon Beacon printed some correcting accounts during the decade that followed the storm. In the case of the famous “Richelieu Hurricane Party,” Beacon Editor, Parnell McKay reported that a young lady had appeared at the Second Street office when he was still the Pass Civil Defense Director. It was the Tuesday following Camille’s passing. She stated that she had left the Richelieu Apartment building early that Sunday morning. She brought up the subject of how a Seabee had told her that there were “21" killed at the Richelieu. She said that the Seabee had counted 21 bodies on a truck.
Parnell had told her, “Well, ma’am you are greatly mistaken, most of those bodies were members of the Williams family who had 13 members that had perished in Trinity Church. These people were Negroes. How many Negroes did you have living in the Richelieu?”
“Well, there were none,” she said, “but the Seabee told me he counted 21 bodies that came from the Richelieu. They were in the truck parked right there.”
Parnell went on to state that Hester Lizana was the driver and owner of the truck who had three or four bodies from the Richelieu, which brought the count to eight lost once the remaining bodies were found days later.
Parnell figured that it was that same young lady who had reported the story on national television. Since then many accounts have increased the number to 23.