BILOXI, Miss. – In the long, harrowing moments before Katrina crashed into the east side of this coastal city, a dozen family members, friends and neighbors piled into the only bedroom of a wooden house.
Then they waited, and some drifted asleep. Suddenly, the water rushed in. It came fast, penetrating every wall and window. They retreated to a living room that yielded no protection from the 5-foot tide inside the house.
The babies began screaming, the adults panicked and, in that moment, 13-year-old Phillip Bullard began saving lives. Four adults and nine children, including himself.
Phillip swam and cradled the youngest. He floated the oldest – all through the house, out a broken front window and into a boat floating down what was once Holley Street. He coaxed his twin sister to turn loose the side of the house, which she clung to in terror. And he took the hands of his mother and grandmother and guided them through the house, on a path made from sodden furniture. They were willing to die, unable to swim and too frightened to leave their home.
“I just didn’t want to see my family drown,” said Phillip, a seventh-grader who spent Wednesday in a shelter at the junior high school he normally attends. “I was scared if I didn’t keep helping, somebody would die.”
Phillip’s story hop scotched across town. Folks quickly learned about the boy who rescued his family, a bright spot in an otherwise dreary day two in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“That little boy is a hero,” said Kenneth Brinson, who helped set up an outdoor community center near Main Street Baptist Church in the neighborhood where Phillip lives. Most of the day, Brinson cooked red beans and rice and smoked sausage for the hungry.
Phillip, a typical teenager who runs and jumps and dances and dreams, lives with his mother and grandmother on the east side of town, in a collection of older A-frame homes in a mostly poor, mostly withered neighborhood. Almost from the very beginning, they knew the little house would fall to a storm with this kind of roar.
“I saw all the water and it was coming from everywhere. I swear it came through the floor,” said Vanessa Posey, 44, Phillip’s mother. “I started screaming and trying to get everybody up. I broke the window and tried to put the babies on top of the bar. My son did most everything else.”
Phillip, a soft-spoken boy who said he knew he wanted to be a police officer or doctor before the storm, says he went under water to clear a path to the window and then got his older sister, Yoshico Posey, out. He picked her first because she was the only other person who could swim and help guide the rest out of the house. They formed a rescue team. He carried or floated each person out the window; she passed them to a neighbor who was helping, or put them in a boat they found drifting by.
Later, they used broomsticks to paddle down the street and took haven in the upstairs loft of a neighbor’s home.
“It felt like Phillip was in there getting people for hours,” said Vanessa Posey, sitting outside the shelter. “I just kept thanking the Lord for every person he got out.”
By the time Phillip finally swam out the house, he found his twin sister clinging to the exterior wall of the house.
“She was scared. It took me awhile to convince her to let go and take my hand,” he said softly. “But I had to keep trying because she would not have made it.”
After every person was rescued, Phillip took the boat to Division Street, a main thoroughfare, to find help. It never came.
And so the story that began at noon Monday in the earliest moments of Katrina’s brief stay ended with Phillip in a shelter, nursing a foot cut by tin that his mother fears will become infected. This time, help is on the way.
“I just thank God for Phillip,” the mother said. “We would not be here but for the grace of God and the courage of my son.”
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