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A momma's love

One woman's journey through hell to find her son

Joycelyn Askew revisits the street corner -- Diamond and Convention Center Boulevard -- where she reunited with her son.

By Christy Oglesby

Monday, October 17, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Two of Joycelyn Green Askew's children died before they were born, and she wasn't about to lose the son she'd finally had to the post-hurricane chaos that gripped New Orleans.

Her son, 22-year-old Quentin, was somewhere at the sprawling New Orleans convention center amid thousands of desperate people who were stranded after Hurricane Katrina.

At 6'2'', nearly 300 pounds, he is young, strong and healthy. But if media reports were true -- festering corpses, raging violence, filth, and no food or water -- Askew feared her son didn't stand a chance.

"Physically, he probably could've survived," she said. "But mentally, I don't think he could've taken another day."

So she did what a loving mother would do. She set off on foot on a 9-mile trip, wading through New Orleans' flooded streets, dodging bullets and passing dead bodies along the way, to find her son and get him to safety.

Both Joycelyn and her son are security officers -- essential personnel who had to remain in the city during evacuation. The mother works for Tulane University and the son for state museums in the French Quarter.

After Katrina struck and the large extended family began accounting for one another, Quentin was among the missing. The word was that he might have gone to the convention center, where thousands of others sought shelter. The hunch was enough to set Joycelyn in motion.

She took a green flatboat across the 4-feet of water on the school's campus to Tulane's boundary. From there, Joycelyn said, she'd walk to wherever Quentin was, despite her bad knees. She headed first to a friend's house on Austerlitz street where there was a working phone. She called the family again and was told that Quentin was at the convention center as she had feared.

Hobbling, Joycelyn asked a police officer in a U-Haul truck for a ride. He told her if she could hold onto the back, he'd give her a lift downtown. He dropped her off one block shy of the convention center.

"When I got (to the corner of Convention Center Boulevard), the things I saw were unreal. All kinds of things were going on. Some people were crying, some were partying. They were breaking into cars parked on a lot. They were hungry and dirty. And it was just so many people, thousands and thousands and thousands."

'We've lost control of the city'

She stood on a corner near the perimeter of the masses and prayed. "I said, 'Lord, I'm never going to find my son. Please help him find me,'" she recalled.

A police officer tried to warn her from going any further. "He said, 'We've lost control of the city. Get out of here.' And I said, 'I'm not leaving here without my son.'"

Three blocks later she heard a familiar voice. "I heard somebody say, "Momma." I couldn't see him. But I heard it again, "Momma." And he stepped out. We just fell apart and we started crying."

"He looked 40-years-old, I couldn't believe this was my son looking this old. And the horrific stuff he told me that went on there during the night, I couldn't believe it," she said.

Their journey to safety was more perilous than her walk to downtown. When Quentin approached a police officer to beg for a ride for his aching mother, the man drew his weapon. "When that police officer pointed a gun at my son, I said, "Let's go!"

They tried walking across the Crescent City Connection bridge to their house in Algiers. But armed officers turned them back. After they turned around and headed to St. Charles Avenue, gunfire started, Joycelyn said. They couldn't tell where it was coming from or who was shooting. They ran for cover.

At one point, they rested on the steps of a hospital. "We just started crying and hugging again. And he said, 'Momma, is this a mother's love?' I said, 'Yes. This is a mother's love. If we were gonna die in New Orleans, we were gonna die together.'"

When they started walking again, back to the house on Austerlitz Street, an Army National Guardsman put them in the crosshairs of his assault rifle and asked what they were doing. She told him she was looking for safety.

He lowered his gun and told them to take off their work shirts, which identified them as "police." Snipers were shooting at anyone identified as law enforcement, he told them.

Once the mom and son arrived at Austerlitz Street, they checked in with their family.

"I called my brother in Maryland, and I said, 'I got him!'" Joycelyn recalled. "And he said, 'You got him?' And I said, 'Yes, I did. I got him.'"

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