BROWN: I don't know how many stories there are like the one we're about to tell. This is the story of three young men, college students at Duke University who, while watching us late last week, decided to get in a car, drive to New Orleans and save a life or two, ending up loading relief supplies at a TV station. And in doing so, they were generous and ingenious and energetic and a little larcenous. They left behind good deeds and brought back some wisdom. We talked with Sonny Byrd, Hans Buder and David Hankla late today.
BROWN: Million -- literally millions of people, tens of millions of people, were sitting around the other day watching all of this play out. What is it about you or the three of you that made you think, you know what, let's go there and do something? HANS BUDER, DIKE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: You know, I've always criticized myself for dreaming big, but not having the initiative to go through with it. And just this one time I decided I'm not going to be an armchair humanitarian. So I just talked to Sonny and Hankel and we went down.
BROWN: And, Sonny, when he turned to you and said, let's go there, did you think for a second, that's crazy?
SONNY BYRD, DUKE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: That did cross my mind, but the first thing that left my mouth was I'll be there in five minutes.
BROWN: David, you're on the road now, you're heading towards the great unknown, and I suppose to some extent, a great adventure. Did it feel like you were off on a great adventure?
DAVID HANKLA, DUKE UNIVERSITY STUDENT: It wasn't so much a great adventure as a great opportunity. Everything that's we can do and everything that's available for us to do to really help people, we need to do that.
BROWN: Did you have any idea, not so much what you'd find, because you'd seen picture of it, so you had some idea what you'd find. Did you have any idea of what you'd do?
HANKLA: We'd hoped to do basically what -- exactly what we did.
BUDER: What we did. That was our plan. We got to the Convention Center.
HANKLA: Exactly. Our goal was to get to the Convention Center, where no one else seems to be going, and find a way to get people out. Just get our way into the heart of the city and find people who need help and find a way to help them.
BROWN: Hans, let's talk a little bit about getting to the Convention Center itself. Actually, driving there wasn't the hard part. I guess getting past the security along the way was. Whose idea it was to steal the press passes?
BUDER: This was Sonny Byrd. We actually took a business card, an AP pass and also a television shirt with the embroidery from the station. And we scanned in the business card and the press passes and changed the names to our names. And we went past the military blockade, just waved, and didn't even roll down the windows, and they let us through.
HANKEL: It was unbelievable. Literally, like, we're sitting there, working at the station, and we were just like, I really wish there was some way to get past. And Sonny was like, yes. Seems like a lot of press people seem to be going. I was like, I wish we had a pass. And Sonny just kind of paused, walked out of the room, came back a couple of minutes later and said now we do. What can we do with these?
BROWN: All right. You get to the Convention Center and, in truth, things are better than they had been the day before. But they're hardly pleasant. Sonny, what did you see? What do you remember? How did it feel?
BYRD: The first thing, we were extremely surprised when we came upon the building, because we really didn't think we would be able to drive right up to it, but we were able to do that. And there were military helicopters flying through the sky, there were National en and women all over the place with guns and military supplies. And just the entire Convention Center was trashed. It was just a disaster. And we walked up to it, and we walked right inside. And there was just the impression that we got, the smell was overwhelming, there was feces and urine everywhere, and it was just an absolute nightmare.
BUDER: We saw a kid on the corner who had a sign that said need food and water. One gentleman had been stranded in a tree when the flood waters came up, he didn't know how to swim, so he was trapped in the tree, and fire ants devastated his face, welts on his face, all over his body. Took him out and three women the first trip and then we came back the next morning at first light.
BYRD: When we were leaving New Orleans, the ladies in the back seat were jubilant when they saw street lights. And we passed a dumpy little strip mall and they were just like oh my God, look at this, look where we are. They were crying. They said at last we're free, God almighty we're free. And we were just leaving the city, you know?
BROWN: Where did you take them when you took them?
BUDER: We took them to Baton Rouge to reunite with family, and eventually to get them on buses to Texas.
HANKEL: If we'd had another day to run people in and out, we probably could have gotten appreciably more people. I mean --
BUDER: A hundred.
HANKEL: Yes. We could have just gone in and out, in and out all day. I mean, we found places to get gas. It really was not that big of a -- it wasn't that hard once we actually got in there and had a plan in action.
BROWN: Are you shocked that it was -- I don't want to say it was easy, you guys went to a fair amount to do it, but it wasn't swimming across the ocean either. But it was no harder than it was to do what you did and that there were so many people who needed to be moved that weren't moved?
BUDER: Yes, shocked.
HANKEL: Extremely, extremely shocked.
BUDER: The overarching question that we had was, how did we get in there, we've never been to New Orleans before, how did we get in there where these people have been stranded for four, five days with no food and water, living in a lawless anarchy environment, how do we get in there in 20 minutes in a Hyundai Elantra? And why did they not get out four days before that?
HANKEL: Why couldn't anyone else allegedly get in when we could, with such relative facility. I mean, once we were past the National Guard, it literally, it was a direct drive.
BUDER: We saw 150 empty buses driving the other way on I-10 as we were going into the city.
HANKEL: As we were driving in, bus after bus after bus that was completely empty, no people they were evacuating, driving away from the city or parked roadside.
BYRD: A lot of people, including the people at the Convention Center, they weren't trapped by hurricane damage, they were trapped by red tape. And if we could drive right in there in 20 minutes, there's no reason why help couldn't have gotten to them sooner.
BROWN: Well we're lucky to talk to you and we're pleased at what you did. Don't be so hard on yourself. You went out and did a great thing. Good for you.
BYRD: Thank you, Mr. Brown. Thanks very much.
BROWN: Nicely done, guys.
BROWN: So imagine getting a call from your kid saying, I want to go to New Orleans and help. Hope you'd say yes. Hope I'd say yes. Coming up, the waters of New Orleans receding revealing dangers of a different stripe. There are dangers in the waters. Much more ahead on this Special Edition of NEWSNIGHT. Break first.