‘He told me that he loved me and that he probably was going to die’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 4, 2005

The wind howled outside, toppling trees and flattening buildings.

A river of murky, muddy water – more than 3 feet of it – carved a path through the single-story house in D’iberville, Miss.

As chunks of ceiling insulation began dropping on his head Monday morning, 19-year-old John Janin, perched atop a pool table, called his mother, Maryanne Fiorella, to say goodbye.

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&uot;He called me at my desk and said the ceiling was coming down and water was filling up the house,&uot; said Fiorella, who that day was starting her second week as deployment manager at Sara Lee Coffee & Tea. &uot;He told me that he loved me and that he was probably going to die.&uot;

Janin and two pals, Chris Chapman and Chris Giacometti, all 2004 graduates of Alliance Christian School, had been in Mississippi for less than two weeks. All three had just begun their first year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, about 20 miles outside of Biloxi, Miss., on full baseball scholarships.

On Sunday, with Hurricane Katrina fast approaching, the three went home with a teammate to sit out the storm.

Janin’s phone call, which triggered a flood of another sort in Virginia, also spurred Sara Lee into action.

As floodwaters inched up on Monday, Felix Venezuela, vice president of the Suffolk plant, got to work. He and three company volunteers – plant manager Buddy McGuire, maintenance manager Mike Barnes and maintenance supervisor James Kirsch – filled a van and pickup truck with necessities: 40 gallons of gas, canned food, cots, coffee pots, grills, batteries and coffee – and early Thursday began the 18-hour drive to D’iberville.

&uot;Going down there was the right thing to do, pure and simple,&uot; said Venezuela. &uot;It was the only thing to do.&uot;

The Sara Lee convoy, which pulled into Mississippi about 5:30 a.m. Friday, picked up the boys, emptied a load of supplies and began the long journey home.

For six hours after picking up the boys, there was nothing but silence in the trucks, Venezuela said. No quiet chatter, no whispers, not even an occasional snore.

&uot;The silence was deafening,&uot; he said. &uot;They were in shock.&uot;

Finally reaching home around 1 a.m. Saturday, the boys got their first showers in a week, hot food and hugs from worried family members.

Early Saturday morning, the three Portsmouth boys, along with one of their teammates, Chadwick Cameron of Toronto, dove into plates of scrambled eggs, sausage and toast at Fiorella’s home.

Five days ago, Janin wasn’t sure such a day would come again.

&uot;I remember thinking I’m going to die,&uot; he said. &uot;I wasn’t sure how to act. I was just praying that somehow we would make it home OK.&uot;

Chapman remembers feeling the same way.

&uot;I honestly didn’t think we were going to get out of there,&uot; he said. &uot;It was a bit scary. I just wanted to come home, see my family and take a shower.&uot;

Giacometti said he never feared for his life, even on Monday as the hurricane’s devastation surrounded them. Although he plans to return to Mississippi for school, he said he will never make a permanent home in a hurricane-prone area.

&uot;I will never take hurricanes lightly,&uot; he said. &uot;All of this has made me feel more thankful for everything we have. I’m just thankful to be alive.&uot;

Luckily, the boys said, the floodwaters in the home of Pam and Bubba Diaz – where the three from Portsmouth spent most of the past week – receded as quickly as they rose. But the house, like many in the small community of D’iberville, was wiped out by the


&uot;It’s tragic,&uot; said Giacometti. &uot;It’s sad to see people’s houses flattened. The restaurants and casinos are gone.

&uot;We saw boats in the middle of the road, miles from any water, and a car sitting on top of a fence.&uot;

People can’t really understand the devastation by simply looking at images on television, Cameron said.

&uot;There’s no way to understand how bad it truly is until you see it and feel it,&uot; he said. &uot;People are crying and wandering around with no place to go.&uot;

The boys said they didn’t see much of the lawlessness plaguing more metropolitan areas hit by Katrina.

&uot;I saw people get frustrated when a Wal-Mart operating on a generator had to close,&uot; Janin said. &uot;A couple of people argued with the police officer outside but that was really it.&uot;

In fact, despite the ravaged conditions, they said they felt an overwhelming sense of friendship and faith in the community.

&uot;The Diazes took us in, fed us and made us feel like a part of their family,&uot; Janin said. &uot;We had only met them one time before that.

&uot;There is a lot of hope in D’iberville,&uot; he said. &uot;People are amazingly optimistic.&uot;


agreed, saying Sara Lee is going to &uot;adopt&uot; the town.

&uot;When we met the boys at the appointed intersection, we met the Diaz family,&uot; he said. &uot;That family took in total strangers. Even in the midst of all their tragedy, I saw nothing but friendliness and they greeted us with a smile.

&uot;We are going to do all we can to help them.&uot;