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Point of view: Ode to Jim: When the living neglect the dead

We danced for Jim last Sunday. The Hot 8 Brass Band led the way, starting at Mimi’s in the Marigny and ending at the Country Club, a favorite spot of his. Many of Jim’s friends and loved ones came to pay their respects, wearing dapper outfits and bearing second line umbrellas. Several of Jim’s closest friends had made over a hundred white handkerchiefs, bearing messages like “We the People” to pass out to the mourners.

It was beautiful. It was sad. It was insufficient. For Jim Dugan, who had disappeared 10 days earlier after being last seen on a pier that crumbled into the Mississippi River, had not been laid to rest — at least not in the traditional sense. After a troubled search by the New Orleans Police Department, an outcry from the public and subsequent media attention, Jim’s body was located deep below the river’s surface, trapped under parts of the dilapidated pier and rebar, by a volunteer search team from Texas. A rescue mission to retrieve the body was initially ruled too dangerous even for the skilled divers, due to the depth of the water, the multiple currents and the materials obstructing the body.

Days passed, and then when Texas EquuSearch used its marine sonar technology to look again, Jim was gone. He’s still gone. According to Jim’s mother, posting Friday to the Facebook group that has been ground zero for news and remembrances of Jim, “EquuSearch went home after they lost Jim on sonar and the divers went in and found nothing. They could do nothing more. All vessels on the Mississippi are aware to be [on] alert for a missing body, as are all Harbor Patrols and all police downriver.”

That kind of concise assessment — knowing what every available branch of law enforcement and emergency operations is doing to assist in the search — was nowhere to be found in the first week after Jim disappeared. The woman he was last seen with, who said they had sat on the pier early March 22 and had fallen in together when it collapsed (she made it out), had not reported the incident to law enforcement. She assumed or believed he had made it out of the river, too, she later said to police.

Meanwhile, Jim’s friends didn’t know where he was. He hadn’t shown up for work, which was unlike him. Eve Crawford, who chronicles her frustration with NOPD and the search in this article, called NOPD Wednesday morning and asked them to go by Jim’s house for a welfare check. No one ever did.

It wasn’t until my friend, Sarah Ravits, tracked down the woman last seen with Jim and heard back from her nearly 36 hours later that she learned about Jim’s fall into the river. Sarah and Eve called 911 and met with police. The Harbor Police Department conducted a brief scan of the river by boat and found nothing, and no further search plans were made.

Sarah and Eve tried to appeal to police to stay on the search, even visiting the station to hand out fliers with additional information, but they were told the station house had no working copier. Monday arrived, six days after Jim’s fall into the river, and NOPD still had no more plans to look for Jim’s body.

An NOPD public information officer said a continued boat search was the purview of the Harbor Police Department. A spokesperson for Harbor Police said they were awaiting instructions from NOPD. No one on NOPD’s payroll was qualified to conduct a dive search of the river, as the training and equipment were too expensive, NOPD said.

Meanwhile, a rapidly-expanding network of friends and concerned citizens joined the Facebook group “Help find Jim Dugan!” Members posted updates about the search, organized flyer raids in different neighborhoods, announced benefits at local bars to raise money for the search, and worked on bringing media attention to the case.

Fueling all the efforts was not only love for Jim — the group attracted more than 1,800 members, many of whom barely knew Jim or didn’t know him at all — but a sense of general outrage and civic imperative in the face of institutional neglect.

“I didn’t know Jim but it’s a shame how NOPD has responded,” one Facebook user wrote on the group page. “I am honestly prepared to do anything I can to make our city a little less corrupt. How can they just not care?”

We now know from the efforts of EquuSearch that Jim likely became trapped soon after falling into the river. In all probability, only luck could have helped him get out alive. However, he was still Jim, and he was still under water, and until media attention to the search grew, NOPD seemed to treat him as persona non grata — a nuisance, a body, a waste of time.

There’s a reason we still take pains to settle the remains of our dead. Whether through burial or the scattering of ashes, it is the job of the living to make sure a loved one’s earthly remains find a final resting place — or to do one’s damnest to make that happen.

That NOPD required days of prodding and a media spotlight to coordinate a real search is regrettable. That so many people came together online and on the ground to do what needed to be done says a lot — about community and our frustration with New Orleans government, but also about our most primal fears of being forgotten and neglected in death.

What happened to Jim could happen to almost anybody, and nobody wants to think their community and civic leaders would allow their body to be abandoned.


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