Matt Pincus doesn’t know whether Brian Williams really looked out his hotel room window at the Ritz-Carlton and saw a body floating in the floodwaters that inundated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
But he is convinced of this: Williams believes that he did.
Pincus, a reserve sergeant with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office when the storm struck, met the NBC anchor during the storm and squired him around on many of Williams’ followup visits to the ruined city.
Every time they would pass the Ritz — Pincus recalled in an interview Wednesday with The New Orleans Advocate — Williams would recount how he saw a corpse floating near the hotel.
“I just don’t see why he would manufacture that,” Pincus said. “I really don’t. And it happened more than once. He didn’t say this while he was taping. And I don’t need to be impressed. … He remembers exactly. … And I really believe that’s why he wouldn’t stay in that hotel.”
NBC News announced Tuesday that Williams would be suspended for six months after the anchor admitted that he lied by claiming that he’d ridden in a helicopter in Iraq that was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade. In the days after that admission, some of Williams’ other reporting has come under question, including recollections about what he saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The network has pledged to conduct a full inquiry.
Pincus said he was at the Ritz for most of the week after the storm, and while he didn’t see a body in the spot Williams would later remember one, he did see one less than two blocks away, near Rampart and Canal streets — though he hastens to add that it merely appeared to be a body.
But he said it’s entirely possible Williams saw something Pincus didn’t, noting that he and others at the hotel were making furtive forays into the surrounding area, but mostly trying to keep the building secure.
“Hours and hours could have gone by where I didn’t look at a specific spot,” he said.
‘Definitely in a bad state’
Pincus first met Williams in a stairwell at the five-star hotel a couple of days after the flooding began.
He didn’t recognize the NBC anchor at the time, but he did recognize the signs of illness. Williams looked awful, he remembered: He was seated on a mattress, and Pincus strongly encouraged him to visit the team of doctors that had set up a makeshift clinic in the hotel’s bar.
“He looked like he was suffering from stomach pains,” Pincus said. “I asked him, ‘Can I get you some help? You don’t look like you’re doing too well.’ ”
One of Williams’ co-workers agreed with Pincus, and with effort, they were able to get the anchor to his feet and to a doctor. From there, the decision was made to get Williams out and get him medical attention. Pincus believes that was on Wednesday, Aug. 31.
“The bottom line is he was sick,” Pincus said. “I’m not a doctor, but he was definitely in a bad state, and he was struggling with it in order to perform his duties.”
That was the last Pincus saw of Williams for awhile. But the two reconnected because Pincus was hired as a security consultant by NBC less than a week after the storm, and he drove Williams around the city on his frequent return visits. Williams never forgot Pincus’ efforts to help him, and the two became long-distance friends, of a sort.
In reminiscences about the storm, Williams has often referred to Pincus with affection as one of the people who reached out to him when he was at a low point.
“He’s been good to me,” Pincus said. “But I’m not going to lie for him. I’m going to tell you the exact truth. … We don’t have a personal … he’s a friend, but we don’t go — I don’t fly to New York and stay at his house.”
Before joining the JPSO as a reserve deputy, Pincus spent 10 years as a patrol officer with the NOPD, retiring in 1998. Last year, he retired from his volunteer gig with the JPSO; he now works in real estate and as a security consultant. He has resisted interviews in recent days as he watched Williams’ reporting being picked apart, largely because he is publicity-shy and doesn’t want to be viewed as attention-seeking.
But he said he decided to speak out because he feels the truth is important, and the truth, while subjective, is that he believes Williams is telling America what he honestly remembers.
Benefit of the doubt
Pincus’ plan for Katrina was to ride out the storm at the Hotel Monteleone, where his dad was the manager, and then head over to Jefferson Parish to help keep order. But the second part of that plan fell apart because of high waters, and he found himself at the Ritz after the winds died down.
The hotel’s managers offered him and some other officers a place to stay, and he accepted.
Dr. Gregory Henderson, who was an Ochsner Clinic pathologist attending a retreat at the Ritz when the flooding started, was one of the doctors enlisted by police to set up a treatment clinic in the hotel bar, and then another at the Sheraton.
Like Pincus, he is inclined to give Williams the benefit of the doubt on his recollections — for instance, on his claim of having dysentery.
“As a physician, dysentery is a pretty broad term,” Henderson said. “It basically means diarrhea. Did people still have diarrhea during the storm? I treated so many police officers and so many people during that week. I certainly gave people a lot of Cipro.”
He added that many people suffered ill consequences from being off their regular medications.
Pincus has a similar take. “In my estimation, when a man is sick and he’s obviously in great discomfort, maybe he has some stomach issues, he Googles it, puts two and two together and thought that’s what he had,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s such a big issue.”
Henderson is likewise generous on the question of whether Williams really saw a body from his hotel room window. Henderson didn’t, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one, he said — or that there wasn’t something floating around that people perceived to be a body.
“Was there enough water around the Ritz-Carlton for a body to float?” he asked. “By all means there was. … You could still go off the back balcony and look over the corner of Iberville and Burgundy. They were definitely walking through at least waist-deep water. One guy made himself a little boat and he was paddling.”
Henderson said the trauma of the event and the isolation from communication seemed to contribute to his own misreading of what was going on versus what he actually saw.
He said that once, while treating a patient at the Convention Center, he thought he saw a body rolled up in a tarp taken down the escalator, out the door and deposited for a day on the neutral ground.
His impression then: There must be bodies upstairs. Only later did he unfurl the tarp to find nothing.
A climate of fear
Pincus agreed that the wild reports of looting and lawlessness — while based partly in fact — contributed to a climate of fear, even panic. At the Ritz, reports circulated about bands of men terrorizing and raping women. One of Williams’ recollections that has come under fire is his assertion that the hotel was “overrun by armed gangs.”
Myra DeGersdorff, who was general manager of the Ritz when the storm struck, said Williams’ claims of “gangs” inside the hotel seemed overblown.
“We had one housekeeper who let in a couple of friends who were unsavory characters. And the minute we found out, we not only threw them out, we threw her out,” DeGersdorff said.
Pincus had a mostly similar take.
“Did I see armed gangs in the hotel? No,” Pincus said. “But was there a perception and fear (of that)?” he said. “Because one of our biggest enemies at the time was not having adequate information, adequate communication. So what we were hearing was people that were passing by the hotel, whether it be walking or bystanders, they would scream, ‘There’s gangs, and they’re raping women, and a baby’s been killed.’
“So when you absorb this information as police officers, we have to prepare for the worst. Employees got wind of this, and it started traveling around like a bad flu.”
And if there weren’t armed gangs, per se, there was rampant looting and people with “malicious intentions” trying to make their way into the hotel, Pincus said, adding that he had to point his shotgun at numerous people over the course of the week.
He recalled then-Police Superintendent Eddie Compass showing up and being so happy to find Pincus standing sentry with a weapon that he gave him an emotional embrace. Compass had heard reports that the Ritz was among the places where rapists and gang-bangers had descended, and his daughter was working at the hotel.
“When you look back and see a highly traumatizing situation like that where everyone is on adrenaline-times-100, it really does mess with your head,” Henderson said. “It was a time, maybe the last time in history, where there was absolutely no communication at all with any entity for at least five days. All you know is what somebody tells you. When you start hearing people talk about, ‘There’s dead people here,’ s***, OK. It starts to affect how you see things.
“I’d be hesitant to pile on with what he saw in Katrina. It seems to jibe in general with what I saw.”
Staff writers Jaquetta White and Ramon Vargas contributed to this report.