NEW ORLEANS -- Sergeant Paul Accardo was the public face of the New Orleans Police Department, a spokesman who went in front of the TV camera on a regular basis, but Katrina and its harrowing aftermath were apparently too much for him.
Accardo and another New Orleans police officer have committed suicide, the 1,500-person department announced yesterday, a startling sign of the emotional toll the storm has taken on those trained to face almost any challenge.
Police Superintendent Eddie Compass announced the two suicides yesterday morning, telling WWL Radio in New Orleans that ''the world really can't understand" what has happened in New Orleans in recent days, and that the two suicides were tragic parts of an already horrible situation.
''We had no food, no water, no ammunition, no vehicles, no gas," Compass said. ''We had to scrounge equipment to fight this battle."
Lawrence Celestine was the first officer to take his own life since the storm, police officers said. News of his death came Friday. Accardo's came next, sometime early Saturday morning, when he shot himself in the head in a parking lot in St. Charles Parish, two parishes west of this still flooded city.
Accardo, one of the department's media spokespersons, had endured a devastating week just like many people. But Lieutenant Julie Wilson said the flooding and the violence that followed left Accardo, 36, without any mooring.
''He lost everything he owned," said Wilson, a 25-year veteran. ''He just could not find a way to wrap his mind around what had happened. There was despair in his eyes and sorrow. All I can say is it is more than he could handle."
Accardo, an affable man who had a gentle manner about him, even on murder scenes, was a department veteran who worked as a patrolman in Lakeview and the French Quarter. He jumped at the chance to move to the public affairs office about four years ago and was generally respected by both reporters and police officers.
''He was a good kid," said Captain Tim Bayard. ''Stayed to himself. Did his job. Did a real good job."
Wilson said Accardo and his wife had separated a few months back, and Accardo was in a ''fragile" state. In the middle of last week, when a police officer was shot, he was unable to take notes on the scene -- something that was routine for Accardo, Wilson said.
''He was trying to write, and he couldn't write. He couldn't speak normally, you know? And I made him sit down in the car," Wilson said. ''Paul just didn't have it. I could see it."
Chief Warren Riley, the assistant superintendent and chief of operations, noticed it too. He last saw Accardo at City Hall at 12:30 a.m. Saturday. There had been another shooting, Riley said, and he told Accardo about it. But Accardo hardly responded, Riley said, and shortly thereafter he took a car and drove west. Captain Michael Pfeiffer said the department wanted to give Accardo a chance to get out of town and decompress. But he did not get far.
''He just stopped," Pfeiffer said. ''It caught up with him."
St. Charles Parish deputies informed New Orleans police of the suicide Saturday, Pfeiffer said. It was yet another tragedy among tragedies, and an indication of the emotional scars left on the city. ''People are tired, depressed," said Lieutenant Cris Mandry, of the city's SWAT team. ''There is total despair, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. You've got people who believe their lives are over."
But police officers -- a stoic bunch under normal circumstances -- are doing what they can to support one another. They are crying, and hugging. And trying to find small pieces of good in a city that has changed so much so fast. Mandry, for example, took a moment yesterday to pray at the corner of Magazine Street and Jackson Avenue in the lower Garden District.
On a typical weekend afternoon, it is a bustling block of art galleries, antique stores, and vintage clothing stores. But yesterday it was empty, and there, on the corner, was a rudimentary crypt holding a dead woman's body.
Police said the woman had been lying there dead, for days. But Saturday, a man in the neighborhood decided to bury her. He built the crypt using stones from a nearby garden, erected a white cross out of scattered wood, and left a message for those who would come later.
''Here lies Vera," says the epitaph in black spray paint. ''God help us."