A father weeps in a Facebook video at the thought of his five children swept from him in dark flood waters. A 3-week-old baby alerted parents to rapidly rising waters with her loud hiccups. If neighbors such as Frank Wiles and John Bradshaw had not had fishing boats readily available to brave class two and three rapids on neighborhood streets, they wouldn’t have been able to save countless people who may have drowned in their homes.
Many in Columbia and South Carolina attribute their safety — despite a perfect storm of 11 days of almost non-stop rain with up to 20 inches in a 12-hour period and dozens of small dam breaches — as a miracle. It is now termed the “thousand-year flood” that occurred on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.
“Our survival was not luck. I firmly believe that it was God’s hand that rescued us, and now it’s part of my personal testimony,” says Rob Echols, whose home is at the end of a street in King’s Grant neighborhood. It was 5 a.m. when Lisa, his wife, and their five children, ranging in age from 9 to 15, were awakened to the sound of rushing water. An engineer by trade, Rob assessed the quickly rising water outside. He knew that if he opened a door, the water would violently rush in and perhaps trap someone against a wall. The water needed to seep under the door and through the windows to equalize the pressure.
“My son said suddenly, ‘Look dad, there’s someone here to save us.’ I looked and realized it was my car floating away. The water was coming up so fast,” Rob says.
While the water rose around their legs, the family discussed a plan of action, grabbed their two small dogs and opened a door. They waded out into the cold, dark, turbulent waters. Rob says he quickly realized the force was more than he bargained for. The current pushed them, and their middle son was swept off his feet and toward the storm drain. “My oldest son grabbed him and saved his life … there’s no doubt in my mind,” recalls Rob. The current continued to sweep the family down the street as they struggled to swim. “Two lawn chairs with cushions appeared out of nowhere. We put the three small children on the chairs to float, and the two older ones held on. By this time it was over our heads. I’m convinced God sent us those lawn chairs, or we wouldn’t be here talking right now,” Rob expresses.
When the lawn chair cushions filled with water, he put one of the children on his shoulders. They swam until they reached a higher section of the street and walked onto dry ground. Rob found out later that the Semmes Lake Dam at Fort Jackson, a mile or less from the Echols’ back yard, was breached and sent a wall of water barreling through the King’s Grant neighborhood. Most homes and cars on his street were destroyed.
In fact, according to CBS News, during the flood and a few days after, a total of 27 dams around the state failed, and 129 were still in jeopardy a week later; plus, 300 roads and bridges remained closed. To understand the power of this weather phenomenon, the Congaree River in Columbia rose almost 20 feet in 18 hours. Refrigerators, cars and dumpsters ended up blocks from their original homes. Hundreds of people stayed in American Red Cross shelters, while hundreds more bunked with friends and family or snatched up rental properties that became an overnight commodity.
Leslie and Chris Long, who own a home a few houses down from the Echols’, took refuge in their second floor during the flood, praying that the water would not reach them. It stopped rising about a foot below the second floor. This family also prayed for one of their two teenage sons battling cancer. Remembering the terror of that early morning, Leslie shares, “While he was wading through the dirty flood water trying to save his medicines, he stepped on a knife that had fallen on the floor. At that time his blood counts were low, and he was at high risk for infection. We called 911, and they told us there were 80 calls ahead of us. The water rose about 8 feet in 30 minutes. I realized then that what seems ‘secure’ by earthly standards is not. Only clinging to God is secure.”
She adds, “By God’s grace, my son did not get an infection. His diagnosis and the flood have emphasized the reality that I am not in control.”
Melissa and Wayne Fritz, who live near the exit of King’s Grant, were alerted at 5 a.m. by a neighbor with an umbrella warning of a possible flash flood. The Fritzes’ backyard faces woods, and their deck is elevated approximately 15 feet. They thought flooding was unlikely until — only minutes later — water rose up their front steps and began gurgling up through the floor vents and elevating the carpet.
Wayne tried to open the front door but it wouldn’t budge. Melissa then recalls her grown daughter, Walker, who was visiting from Charlotte, saying, “Let’s pray.”
“We don’t have time to pray,” Melissa told her in a panic. “But my daughter insisted, and we got on the stairs and prayed.”
Since the front door was blocked by water, the family leashed their medium-sized mixed breed dog and was able to push open the door to their deck, only to step down into water over their heads. Into the darkness they swam, pushing against trees and touching bushes with their feet — while their dog was desperately trying to swim back to the house — until they saw neighbors standing on an incline at the top part of their driveway.
Neighbors took the Fritzes to a home at a higher elevation, dried them off and shared clothes with them. Still, the threat of flooding at that house remained. “We were in complete shock,” says Melissa. “I kept thinking that the water was passing our house and damaging houses and lives farther down.”
In fact, the swath of woods taken away at the exit of King’s Grant is astounding –– the force of the water flattened and removed a dense section of the forest. The water from the breeched Semmes Lake Dam affected homes on Burwell Lane, Rickenbaker Road and Kibourne Road, as well as businesses at the Jackson Boulevard and Garner’s Ferry Road intersection.
“Praying is not something our family sits down to do, but my daughter knew we needed to pray,” says Melissa, tearfully, “and God saw us through this. He opened the door and got us out safely.”
After the worst of the early morning flood on Sunday, flash flood alarms pierced cell phones and radios. Television broadcasting warned of dangerous areas and mandatory evacuations. Many residents then suffered a sort of post-traumatic stress again when torrential rains fell six hours later.
However, thinking about the heroism and the miracles that have occurred dissipates anxieties. Frank Wiles, who resides on Rickenbaker Road, which parallels the hard-hit Burwell Lane, says he heralds the man who rescued an elderly neighbor before Frank could paddle his Gheenoe — a type of fishing canoe — to her home. Frank says, “I navigated to the valley on the roof of her house — the roof of her house! I thought, this is not good, but I still hollered down the flue of the chimney in hopes that she may be in a pocketed area.”
Frank learned soon after that a neighbor had saved the lady in his boat moments before. In the early morning darkness they had missed one another. “He’s the true hero,” says Frank. “It was just so good to see neighbors worrying about the safety of one another … helping one another.”
Jeff Graydon, whose home is on Kilbourne Road, was familiar with the high-water marks of the creek in his neighborhood. When he stepped out into the darkness around 5 a.m. on Oct. 4, the water was already encroaching on the house — way above the highest water mark. “We have to get out of here!” he told Janet Enoch, his wife, and grown son Hunt. He moved the family’s one prize possession, an heirloom grandfather clock, onto a bed and grabbed cell phones. The family waded through water rising several feet in minutes and found higher ground; Hunt went back and pulled one of their cars out with water up to the headlights. They secured his sister, Raven Tarpley, whose house was next to a drainage creek, and then Jeff called a neighbor who told him that he was trapped with his family on Burwell.
“I got antsy at that point and came down part of Rickenbaker and got in a jon boat with a buddy, John Bradshaw, who had pulled his parents from their kitchen window into his boat,” he says. They both, through foaming rapids that threatened to tip the boat, rescued around 18 people and multiple dogs and cats. An elderly man refused to leave until his cats were rescued. John had to swim to the garage and pull the cats off the roof of the car. Another elderly man suffering from dementia refused to leave without his wife. They found him sitting in his home in water to his waist. Jeff sent a relative and a first responder to get them out.
A few times, Jeff and John arrived at a home and jumped into water up to their neck to hoist dazed, confused and shocked people into the boat quickly before the water pulled all of them away. An adept swimmer who is used to maneuvering rivers in a boat, Jeff says he feared for his life that perilous morning.
“One guy kept giving us the thumbs up when we went to his house, indicating that he was fine, but we found out later he was going to hole up in his attic. That’s the worst possible thing you could do!” says Jeff. He learned later that people in flood-prone areas around the country will sometimes leave a chain saw in their attics, hunker there if water rises, and then cut a hole in their roofs if the water reaches that far. “I doubted, though, that anyone in Columbia was that prepared.”
Burwell Lane resident John Reading thought the water would just flood his basement, but when he heard the basement door blow off its hinges, he told Elizabeth, his wife, to grab their 3-week-old and 3-year-old. Their new baby, Ann Tucker, had fortunately awakened them with her loud hiccupping moments earlier. “When we left our home, the water was bubbling up through the air conditioning vents,” says John. The water eventually filled to the ceiling before receding, but the family reached safety before that occurred. “Surreal,” is how John described the event.
“It was pandemonium that morning,” says Jeff. He was grieved to hear of a woman who tried to drive her car out on Kilbourne and perished because the water swept her away. She, sadly, was among the other lives lost in the Columbia area and across the state. “We also rescued so many pets. It seemed like they knew something was wrong with the equation and were in shock, too, so many of them were so confused that they remained calm when we got them into the boat.”
The next day, a deluge of families ascended on the Long’s, Echol’s, and a multitude of other affected homes to begin the grueling work of pulling literally everything out. Chris Long sat dazed in a dry chair surveying the material accumulation of his life. Financial experts estimate recovery costs will reach historic highs of $1 billion, or more. Timing will be months and even years. Losses are personal, professional, structural, agricultural and municipal.
In hindsight, Jeff says all that South Carolina endured in 2015 was for a reason — even the flood. It brought people together, it determined priorities and it elevated faith and an appreciation for life.