Tuesday, August 18, 2015

“Where 23 people laughed in the face of death.”—Pass Christian, MS

This is the site of the Richelieu Apartments in Pass Christian, Mississippi. This is a place where 23 people laughed in the face of death. And where 23 people died.

--Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, August 1969

Richelieu Manor Apartments Site
Northwest Corner, Intersection of Henderson Avenue and US-90
Pass Christian, Mississippi

Considered the most imminent and trustworthy of journalists, Walter Cronkite added substance to fiction with his basso profundo voice intoning the above statement. He was standing at the former site of the Richelieu Manor Apartments, a three-story modern apartment building that had been swept off its foundation by the storm surge from Hurricane Camille. Alongside the screaming headlines tracing Camille’s destructive path through the Gulf Coast was the tragic tale of 23 people partying in the face of death here until the storm ripped apart the building, killing everyone. There are reports of people in the vicinity of the former residence still hearing sounds of a party, though it never really happened.
 
The Richelieu Manor Apartments prior to Hurricane Camille's
arrival. Courtesy of NOAA.
Today is the 46th anniversary of Hurricane Camille’s dreaded arrival on the Gulf Coast. She swept into Waveland, Mississippi, just west of Pass Christian, on the other side of the Bay of St. Louis, in the early morning hours of August 18. Shrieking winds heralded the arrival of what would be deemed the third most destructive hurricane to hit the country in the 20th century. The hurricane would continue its destructive path inland bringing heavy rains and destructive flooding to western and central Virginia that would result in more than 150 deaths there.

In the historic town of Pass Christian, Camille roared ashore accompanied by a massive 24.7 foot storm surge that obliterated many of the buildings facing the Gulf like the Richelieu Manor Apartments. In the very next block, the beautiful Gothic-Revival Trinity Church sheltered 16 members of the church sexton’s family. As the surge swept in, the 1849 church collapsed under the strain of water and wind. Only three of the family members who had sought shelter there survived. The surge left just the concrete pad and in-ground swimming pool of the Richelieu apartments covered in debris punctuated by the occasional body of a former resident and seeds of a legend.

On August 20th, the front page of Greenville, Mississippi’s Delta Democrat-Times bears this story from the UPI wires:

20 out of 23 revelers died

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. (UPI)—A police official said today that there were three known survivors in a group of 23 persons who chose to throw a party during the approach of hurricane Camille.
            Assistant Police Chief Tom Ruspoli made the disclosure in telling how he pleaded in vain for everyone to evacuate the Richelieu Apartments before Camille hurled ashore with 190 mile an hour winds.
            “Sunday evening three of us went in and told everybody in the Richelieu to get out,” Ruspoli said. “We went to the Richelieu I can’t say how many times, probably three or four.”
            “We talked to the manager and told her to have all the people evacuated.”
            Ruspoli said the second time he went to the sturdy three-story brick building the people were moving all the furnishings to the top floor.
            “There were 23 of them waiting it out on the third floor. They didn’t think they would be harmed. But we explained to them that even if the water got only to the second floor they would be cut off.”
            Of the 23, Ruspoli said, 14 were known to have died, six were missing and three were rescued from clinging from the apartment.
            “I imagine there was a little bit of drinking that did take place,” the officer said.

Much of this story was pieced together from the account of a young lady who was the lone survivor. According to her story, this young lady tells of partying in a well-stocked apartment on the third floor of the apartment building. Copious amounts of alcohol and drugs fueled the party. The young lady went to sleep with her sixth husband only to be awakened as the walls of the building began to rend and peel away; she survived by clinging to furniture.
 
The site of the apartments after Hurrican Camille's destruction.
Courtesy of NOAA.
Sadly, this young lady’s life seriously unraveled over the years since her miraculous survival. She was involved with alcohol and drugs and in 1982 she was found guilty of murdering her 11th husband. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, though she was paroled in 1992. Throughout her trial, her lawyers argued that her survival during the hurricane led to her mental unraveling. Of course, the other survivors from the terrible night began to surface and they’re stories were very different.

According to blogger Margie Kieper who has researched the story in depth, there were only 14 people total in the building. Eight died and six survived. Those staying in the apartments had spent the previous day securing the building against the storm. At least one elderly couple was part of that group and many of the younger people stayed in order to watch over them. While the police had told the landlord that everyone in the building should evacuate, those staying believed that the building was strong enough to survive. The building had been deemed a fallout shelter and they did not know that the apartment building’s shoddy construction would not withstand the power of Camille. Those remaining were too tired from their preparations to party; they were simply guilty of making the bad decision to remain.

Author Bud Steed notes in his Haunted Mississippi Gulf Coast that stories of paranormal activity at the site began to circulate in the 1970s and 1980s. He did speak with one woman who reported hearing the sounds of a party in the early 1980s. She heard laughter, music and the clinking of glasses which evolved into screams and the sounds of glass breaking. Steed posits that it’s very difficult to know if this is truly paranormal or the product of overactive imaginations. Regardless, the activity and legend still stands as a testament to the many lives that were tragically cut short here.

The site was later developed into a strip mall which was destroyed by the powerful storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Sources
Hurricane Camille. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 18
     August 2015.
     happened.” Sun-Sentinel. 12 March 2015.
     It never happened.” Weather Underground. 4 March 2015.
Pope, John. “That infamous Hurricane Camille party on Aug. 17,
     1969? It never happened.” The Times-Picayune. 17 August 2014.
Steed, Bud. Haunted Mississippi Gulf Coast. Charleston, SC: History
     Press, 2012.
UPI. “20 out of 23 revelers died.” The Delta Democrat-Times. 20
     August 1969.

1 comment:

  1. There were 23 people that decided to ride out the storm and 8 were killed which is remarkable considering the entire building was swept away. The story about the elderly couple is true, they were both killed. The most tragic story occurred a short distance away where a family of 16 sought shelter in the Trinity Episcopal Church and 13 of them were killed.

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