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Wednesday, September 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The smell of smoke and death

Seattle Times staff reporter

The sound of gunfire and the smell of burning gas and death have filled Joe Deaver's nights since he and a handful of federal officers from Seattle arrived in New Orleans on Friday.

Deaver is an inspector with the Federal Protective Service (FPS), a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) responsible for policing federal buildings and installations, from the federal courthouse in downtown Seattle to the Social Security Office in Tacoma.

Deaver, 24, of Bonney Lake, is the youngest FPS officer from this area to volunteer for duty in the hurricane-ravaged city.

"You see old war movies where bombing runs have gone through and you never think that's something you'll see firsthand," Deaver said yesterday by cellphone from downtown New Orleans. "Cars are crushed with bricks, buildings have collapsed or are collapsing. You can see the gas lines still on fire and you can smell the smoke all night long. ... We hear gunshots at night, and we're still hearing them."

On Aug. 30, ICE officials sent out an agencywide e-mail requesting volunteers. "Within hours, they were flooded with offers," with 700 employees now on the ground, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said from California.

Deaver and about six colleagues were at work when they got the call to ship out to the Gulf Coast.

Since arriving Friday, Deaver has worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day, returning to a hotel 150 miles outside the city to sleep and change clothes.

Most everyone has evacuated New Orleans, Deaver said. "Now, a lot of people are just in hiding, but some of the buildings and hotels have snipers shooting at police and firemen."

But there have been moments of humanity, too. Deaver helped carry an elderly woman onto a helicopter for evacuation. "She was so grateful. People say, 'Thank you, thank you,' for a bottle of water."

Deaver has seen despair in children's eyes and sensed their parents' numbed helplessness. But more than anything, Deaver said the smell of the city is what he's noticed most.

Deaver has no idea when he'll come home, but he talks with his wife, parents and brother daily.

"It's tough, it's really tough, because our No.1 objective is to get home. With all the lawlessness, you just never know what's going to happen," he said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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