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 » Rebuilding  |  Landmarks  | Storm & Flood  |  Special report

3 days of death, despair and survival

'We're gonna die, why don't we just end it quicker?'

By Jennifer Pangyanszki
CNN

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Debbie Este looks on as her daughters, Amanda, 13, and Tiffany, 16, check e-mail from friends.

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (CNN) -- Trapped inside the darkened, stifling hot attic of her flooded home in New Orleans with her two teenage daughters, Debbie Este watched her own mother die as they waited for help she thought would never come.

For three days they waited, sweating and stripped nearly naked because of the 110 degree heat, with no food and running out of water. The rising water reached the attic and threatened the survival of anyone inside the yellow-sided, single-story house.

During half the time they were trapped, the body of Debbie's mom, Melissa Harold, 68, who didn't make it through the ordeal, lay lifeless on the attic floor.

Debbie and her girls -- Tiffany, 16, and Amanda, 13 -- could hear the churn of helicopters overhead, evacuating neighbors near their house on Arts Street. The sound only reminded them that nobody had come to their rescue.

Their own screams for help were unanswered. Fear got the better of Debbie. She felt so hopeless, she thought about using painkillers she had with her to end her and her daughters' plight.

"I said nobody's going to come save us up here and I don't wanna die like this, three days laying in this stinky, dirty water," Debbie Este said this week. "I couldn't take it anymore. We're gonna die, why don't we just end it quicker?'"

At that time, stories of life and death and desperation were taking place across New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina's fury swept through the Gulf Coast, raising the waters and breaching the levees that kept the city and its homes above water.

For the Estes, one family member was left dead and Debbie and her two daughters made it out alive, joining the hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Before their eventual rescue and relocation to a shelter in Baton Rouge, however, the three trapped survivors had to rescue themselves from succumbing to Debbie Este's desperation.

Debbie, who is 47 and uses a wheelchair, had carried her painkillers -- 60 Loratab 10s -- into the attic. And she asked the girls to swallow the pills with her to end the suffering.

"She kept on saying, come on and take 'em," said Tiffany, who marked her 16th birthday in the Baton Rouge River Center shelter on Monday. "I just kept telling her we were going to be saved, but really, I didn't know."

Amanda swayed her mother from suicide by talking about her future.

"I said I want to finish school and have a job and have kids and have a husband," Amanda said.

"She was miraculous. I couldn't believe it," Debbie said of her younger daughter. "I was so proud of her. She just screamed like that for hours and hours. Her and Tiffany kept saying we weren't going to die up here."

Tiffany doesn't remember much else, having slept most of the time, even though her mom regularly woke her up, afraid she had died. "After my grandma died, I just went to sleep. She thought I'd died, but I was just sleeping."

Escape to higher ground

Before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Sunday, August 28, Debbie said she hadn't paid much attention to the warnings and didn't want to evacuate without the family's pets. "I never once dreamed ... I just thought it would be a little wind and rain and then it would just blow over."

The family had lived in the three-bedroom house on Arts Street for 13 years. Melissa Harold, the grandmother, moved in several years ago after Debbie's husband died. They lived with three dogs, a cat, a guinea pig, a gerbil, six hamsters and a parakeet.

"My mom told us we weren't leaving because wherever we went, we couldn't bring our animals with us," said Tiffany, who wants to be a veterinarian and mourned leaving behind the pets, including those buried in the back yard.

On Monday morning, after the levees broke, the water came into the house, and instantly swamped the carpeted floors. Within minutes, it was waist deep.

"It started coming in my bedroom, and before I know it, the mattress is all full of water," Debbie said. "It was that quick."

Amanda woke Tiffany up in her room, the last room to stay dry. The girls quickly started grabbing pets and waited for their mom, who was snatching credit cards from her room.

"When it started getting like that, I said we have to go in the attic, because that's the highest place I know of to go," Debbie said.

Tiffany lost her cell phone trying to save a hamster and nearly drowned trying to save her cat in water that quickly swelled over her head. "It started coming up, faster and faster," she said.

Debbie pulled Tiffany to safety on the attic ladder, and in turn, the girls helped their mom, who has been in a wheelchair for three years after an injury, on the steps into the dry attic. "God must have been with me, I don't know how I did it," Debbie said.

They only found about a gallon of drinking water to take up with them. Then their battle to survive began.

Torturous conditions

Temperatures climbed with the water level. On the first day, they watched the water reach the fifth ladder step from the top. On the second day, it lapped onto the attic floor.

The family stayed in the back of the attic, not trusting the other side of the floor, which was weaker.

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While trapped in her attic, Debbie Este watched her mother die while the family waited for rescue.

There were no windows, or light, just one small air vent. They took off most of their clothes because it was so hot.

With no tools, Tiffany and Amanda banged against the inside of the roof, hoping someone would hear and come to their rescue.

Tiffany dipped her feet in the floodwater to stay cool and thought about a root beer left behind in her room. Her mom wouldn't let her enter the water to go get it. They all repeatedly stopped their grandmother from trying to swim to get her purse from downstairs.

By Monday evening, the 68-year-old woman's condition had deteriorated and her daughter and granddaughters knew she was dying. Six months earlier, she had suffered from congestive heart failure.

"Her breathing was getting slower, she kept saying she wanted water," Tiffany said, but the sips from the almost-empty bottle were not enough.

Melissa Harold, a former newspaper reporter, passed away a day and a half after climbing into the attic. "We told her we loved her, and she said she loved us," Debbie said, in tears. "I told her I was sorry I couldn't help ... And she closed her eyes."

Soon, the drinking water was gone. By Wednesday, the same water they had to urinate in started filling up the attic. They inched farther and farther back.

Then, Debbie Este heard a voice from outside. Her brother, Aldo Harold, 50, had arrived by boat with some friends. Debbie had last talked to him by phone briefly three days earlier when the water started coming in to his house about a mile away.

"I thought I was dreaming," Debbie said. "I heard my brother hollering 'Debbie!' and I don't think I've screamed so hard in my life, I said 'We're here!'"

Tiffany, awakened by her mother's screams, realized they were going to stay alive. "My uncle just kept saying he was going to get us out."

In about five minutes, using an ax, Aldo chopped through the black shingles and wood of the roof so the three of them and two dogs could be pulled into the boat.

During the rescue, more water poured in, raising the level in the attic. Holding her forefinger and thumb about six inches apart, Debbie said, "This much more and we would have been dead."

They were pulled out into a surreal scene. All they could see was water all around as they emerged from their drowned house.

"My mother is dead up in the attic," Debbie said this week in Baton Rouge, her eyes darkened behind sunglasses indoors. "I just keep thinking about watching my mother die, and there was nothing I could do."

Time for recovery

The boat took them to the Save-A-Lot in their neighborhood. Then they rode in the bed of a pickup truck to the University of New Orleans. From there, a helicopter took them to Baton Rouge, where they stayed in a field hospital for one day while Debbie was treated for dehydration.

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Tiffany celebrated her 16th birthday at the shelter on Monday, where she's stayed for more than a week.

Finally, they were brought to the American Red Cross' River Center shelter, where they tried to begin rebuilding their lives.

Volunteers are making arrangements to find housing for them in Columbia, South Carolina, and they packed up some donated medicines, stuffed animals and clothes in plastic and cardboard boxes and trash bags.

Debbie grieves the loss of her mother, who had been her support system all her life, and worries about her brother, who she hasn't heard from since he rescued her and her girls. He stayed behind to help find more people.

Two of their dogs survived the flood, a shitzu named Matt and lab mix named Princess, but they couldn't bring the dogs out of the city and had to leave them behind.

"I think I'm in shock. I can't even think," Debbie said. "I just take each thing as it comes. And I still keep blaming myself. I say we should have left.

Now, she said her girls are all she needs. When she got pregnant with her first child, she quit her job as an accountant to be a homemaker. Surprised by how much her youngest, Amanda, loves kids, Debbie's dream now is to live long enough to have grandchildren.

"But not anytime soon," she said, with a smile.

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