Katrina rescue costs Salvation Army officer his life

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Widow is sure God has a reason for taking her spouse.

Major Richard Brittle

In a sense, Major Richard Brittle gave his life to save 349 others, including his wife and her brother.

Majors Richard and Fay Brittle were serving as corps officers when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago on Labor Day weekend. The Brittles’ home was crowded with guests—grandparents, children and grandchildren. The family begged them to leave New Orleans, but they knew people would need their help. Thus the Brittles and her brother drove downtown and opened The Salvation Army building located about eight blocks from the French Quarter.

With water up almost to the ceiling in the first floor of the four-story building, and a corner of the third-floor knocked off by the hurricane, the Brittles were trapped with 348 others for five days in a building that by city code could hold 150. The youngest was six weeks old, the oldest 87.

“When the levees broke, everything came through including dead bodies,” Major Faye Brittle said. It was so hot…our clothes, our hair were wet all the time.”

Brittle made countless trips with a five-gallon bucket three flights down into the street to haul in water to flush toilets—water that glistened with the sheen of gasoline and motor oil and bore bacteria from rotting humans and animals. He salvaged cans of food from The Salvation Army’s supply room and, with other trapped evacuees, faced down armed thieves to save the food. During this time, his wife cooked for 350 people standing in five inches of water.

“It was like a nightmare, Major Fay recalled. “My husband hardly slept. He spent his nights flashing a light out of windows hoping to attract rescuers.”

After five days, the U.S. Coast Guard finally rescued the group by helicopter from the roof of the building—a six-hour operation—with Brittle as the last one out.

Following this disaster, the Brittles were appointed as corps officers to Little Rock, Arkansas. Brittle became aware that something wasn’t right physically, but never figured this would be his last assignment.

After many consultations with doctors and various tests, one doctor asked whether the Brittles had traveled out of the country or been exposed to bad water. “No,” he replied, forgetting that he had mucked through polluted waters in New Orleans, facing danger with no idea of the long-term consequences of his work.

This past August, his doctor operated for another look at his liver and found a rare form of cancer—advanced Stage 4 cholangiocarcinoma, cancer of the bile duct. The doctors think he took on a parasite common to third world countries due to the toxic water he encountered, and this is how the cancer developed.

Brittle surprised the doctors, surviving almost five months. He spent the last days of his life in hospice and died at 5:00 a.m. on January 5, 2008. The Brittles were two months from retirement and two weeks shy of their 35th wedding anniversary.

The Brittles lost their home and their possessions. Their son also lost his home, and their daughter-in-law lost her baby. And then a parasite and a cancer took Brittle’s life.

In The Salvation Army, when one dies, he is “promoted to Glory,” and this exactly how Fay Brittle feels. His death was not a defeat—it was a promotion!

“My husband literally saved all of us,” she said. “I think when you love to work with people, it’s a different kind of blessing. In The Salvation Army we’re called to this. It’s not a career. Your heart has to be in it. I know God has a reason for his death. There’s always a plan, always a purpose.”

Compiled from articles by Jay Grelen in the Arkansas Democrat Online.

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