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D-Day Museum Official Recounts His Horror When Looters Invaded the Museum

Jake Staples, the museum's assistant director of facilities, depended on the darkness and labyrinthlike exhibit spaces to hide him during his harried days alone in the museum, when police protection in the Warehouse District evaporated and looters marauded through the museum's ground floor amid the vintage landing craft and tanks.

Before the flood, Staples spent his days seeing to the maintenance of the museum he loves. He understands the workings of the building and exhibits as well as anyone, down to the sounds the structure makes as it expands and contracts with the heat of the day. The stocky, bearded Army veteran chose to stay inside the museum during Hurricane Katrina, fearing only "the wind or a funnel cloud or a lightning strike on the roof," he said. Though "slight, slight tremors shook the building" during the worst of the storm, Staples said, he was utterly confident of his safety. "Those walls are 28 inches thick," he said. "I felt very secure. We could have opened Tuesday morning (after the storm) if we had power and water."

Staples sat tight through Tuesday, eating the provisions the museum had stockpiled before the storm and listening apprehensively to radio reports of the floodwaters that crept across the city following Katrina. He knew his situation was changing for the worse. "By Wednesday evening this area was completely void of police protection, EMTs, anything," he said.

From the vantage point of a raised staircase inside the museum's huge, glass-faced atrium, he watched as groups of young people, who seemed to be simply wandering the streets, streamed past the museum. One group caught his attention because even behind the glass wall of the museum he could hear a young woman berating a group of five young men, alternately cursing them and begging them not to abandon her. "Then one of the men stopped and backhanded her," Staples said. Then he witnessed a gang rape. "Afterwards, she got up, pulled her pants up and kept following them. They were her meal ticket, I guess. ... This area was a jungle."

Now acutely aware of the violence outside, Staples was careful to remain unseen behind the museum's transparent walls, watching from vantage points behind the front desk, on the stairs and even surveying the reflection of the atrium in a polished door.

Wednesday at 8 p.m., Staples heard glass breaking as looters smashed through the door to PJ's, the museum's coffee shop at the corner of Magazine Street and Andrew Higgins Drive. Around 2 a.m. Staples heard intruders break the plate glass double doors into the museum gift shop, where they rummaged through the T-shirts, hats and other souvenirs. At sunrise they smashed through the doors into the atrium. Nothing else stood between Staples and them.

By his estimate 30 to 40 looters at a time scurried beneath the bomber and fighter planes. Some tried to access the cash inside an ATM, chipping futilely at the strong box. Staples retreated to the darkened exhibit, often taking refuge in a tiny theater dedicated to the battle of Leyte Gulf, located in what the museum calls the "serpentine wall." Using his flashlight he positioned benches to create stumbling blocks in the deep darkness as a crude early warning system. Occasionally he ventured out to assess the situation. To his horror, he found that looters had begun venturing to the second floor. "Some went to the second floor, but someone down below yelled in really vulgar language to get back down because they might be seen from outside."

[Eventually, the military showed up and secured the area.]